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By Juliana Sukut

WEST YELLOWSTONE — Coralie Landry landed at the Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone on Thursday, flying from Denver. It is her first time visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Landry was also unwittingly part of a first in a long time for the tiny airport that sits just a few miles north of the park.

Thursday’s flight from Denver International Airport to Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone marks the first time the airport has added a new connection in about 40 years.

Since the ‘80s, the small airport has operated a flight to and from Salt Lake City. It seasonally runs twice daily.

United Express, operated by SkyWest Airlines, is now offering three flights a day from June to October from Denver to Yellowstone Airport.

Landry, who booked the flight online a few months ago, had no idea she was on the very first flight, she said.

She soon caught on to the fanfare. Two of the airport’s aircraft rescue and firefighting trucks welcomed the airplane with an archway of water.

The plane landed just before 1:30 p.m. Landry and the 39 other passengers were welcomed to the terminal with balloons, free stickers and cookies and greetings from several local business owners and officials.

The three new daily flights increase traffic to the airport by 150%, said Yellowstone Airport Manager Jeff Kadlec. The three flights add about 150 more available seats daily.

West Yellowstone Airport, New Flight

Katrina Wiese, president of the West Yellowstone chamber of commerce, greets passengers from the first flight from Denver to the Yellowstone Airport with welcome cookies on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

That, paired with the two flights coming from Salt Lake City, means 350 people could fly into West Yellowstone each day.

It’s difficult to predict how passengers will use the new flight to and from Denver, but Kadlec said it’s likely the connection will make way for more travelers from around the country or international tourists.

“It gives us more access, I think, to the East Coast and opens up a lot of options and a new demographic of customers,” he said.

United has committed to running the seasonal flights for three summers, Kadlec said.

The airport has no plans to add any new connections, but talks of expanding to a new terminal are in the works, he said.

The new flights signal a boost to the airport, and by proxy West Yellowstone’s tourist economy, after a tough year, said Jerry Johnson, mayor of West Yellowstone.

“That’s another 180 to 200 people a day that can come and go,” Johnson said. “It’s truly an economic boost.”

The added flights are also a bonus for locals using the airport, he said.

“It saves that two hours that you spend going to Bozeman or Idaho Falls,” Johnson said. “Literally, if I want to, I can just walk home (from the airport).”

The small airport had its ups and downs last year, even with park visitation remaining steady during the pandemic, said Kadlec, who is going on his ninth year as the airport’s manager. Visitation to the airport was lower than normal.

“Like all airports, there was a lot of unknowns to navigate,” he said. “There was a stigma attached to travel, people were hesitant to fly.”

A few months into the tourist season, Kadlec said will likely see a lot of tourists filtering into the gateway town.

“We know they’re are coming, it’s just a matter of how they’re getting here,” Kadlec said.

This year is already on track to have a record number of tourists coming into the area. Yellowstone National Park recorded about a 40% increase in visitation over April 2019, with about 67,500 visitors.

West Yellowstone Airport, New Flight

A passenger takes a photo as she departs from the first SkyWest Airline flight from Denver at the Yellowstone Airport on Thursday, June 3, 2021, at West Yellowstone. 

Garrett Ostler, who owns the historic Madison Hotel and is the co-chair of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, said reservations have been steady this year.

This May, he had 351 guests stay at the hotel. In May 2020, the hotel had only 13.

Having direct flights — and more daily options to fly into the airport — should allow people the option to stay longer in the area, he said.

“You can take a five-day vacation and have all five days in Yellowstone, instead of two days in Yellowstone with driving back and forth,” he said.

Landry and a friend will be staying in the Yellowstone area for five days. It’s her first time to the park. She moved to Chicago from Switzerland last year.

“I’m starting to discover the U.S. and (Yellowstone) was number one on our list to visit,” she said.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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