Packed bags sit near the baggage claim at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in March 2021.

The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport handled over 1.94 million passengers in 2021, breaking its record for most passengers in a year.

That accounted for 40 percent of all air travel to and from Montana, making the Belgrade airport the busiest in the state and the seventh busiest in the region, according to statistics from the airport.

With nearly twice the population of Montana passing through the airport, 2021’s record beat out the previous record of about 1.57 million passengers set in 2019.

In 2020, the airport saw its traffic cut by almost 50 percent due to the pandemic. But even with a slower start in January and February 2021, the airport bounced back quickly.

The busiest airlines included Delta Air Lines with nearly 520,000 passengers, United Airlines with about 496,300 passengers and Alaska Airlines with 305,315 passengers.

Airport Director Brian Sprenger predicts the airport’s growth should continue at a fast pace in early 2022.

“It will probably stabilize more toward the summer and be more at this new threshold,” Sprenger said.

Last year’s successes, Sprenger said, were due to several factors.

The airport added Southwest Airlines in 2021, and nearly every airline serving the airport added more flights and direct destinations.

Also fueling the increase in passengers was an increase in the number of seats on the average plane serving the airport — up from from 99 seats in 2020 to 124 seats in 2021, according to the airport.

But beyond that, the Bozeman area and southwest Montana have become a vacation destination, Sprenger said, especially considering the pandemic’s continued prevalence.

While Bozeman saw a bustling airport, air traffic was still down nationally in 2021. According to TSA statistics, there was a 31 percent decline in total passengers in 2021 compared to 2019.

“People around the nation are looking for ‘socially distanced’ destinations and Montana fits that bill very well,” Sprenger said.

With the 23 percent increase in passenger numbers from 2019 to 2021, some strain was put on the airport’s infrastructure, Sprenger noted.

The biggest stressors for the airport were in parking lot capacity, TSA screening and a shortage of rental cars, he said.

Several projects were completed in 2020 and 2021, which helped ease some growing pains. More projects are in the works, Sprenger said.

In October 2020, the airport opened a 70,000-square-foot concourse, which added a new restaurant and bar and more space for vendors and amenities. The expansion cost upward of $26.5 million and added five gates to the airport.

In 2021, the airport finished adding two new passenger boarding bridges, it began construction on a new $23 million dollar in-line baggage handling system and began work on a new ramp and roadway on the north side of the airport to accommodate the flight school.

As the airport continues to grow, Sprenger said its capital plan looks at upping parking capacity and remodeling the oldest parts of the terminal.

“There’s a lot of projects and they’ll all be based upon where the growth and need is,” Sprenger said. “We’ll adjust as we get closer.”

Other areas of the airport also saw record numbers. The Air Traffic Control Tower handled an all-time record 116,055 aircraft operations during the year, up 11.5 percent, according to the airport’s statistics.

Business aviation operations increased 27.4 percent to 15,288. General aviation accounted for 63 percent of plane operations, scheduled passenger and cargo airline service accounted for about 24 percent, with business aviation accounting for the remainder.