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Flathead Valley Faces Rental Car Crunch As Airport Braces For A Record-Breaking Year

Rental car desks at an airport
Rental car desks at an airport

The tourism industry on Glacier National Park’s west side expects a record-breaking season this summer, but there’s concern a nationwide rental car shortage could dampen the comeback of visitors flying into northwest Montana.

At Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier, customers are eagerly calling in to book their rafting trips for this summer. They gather all the normal reservation info, but the staff are also asking customers flying into town if they have a rental car. Much of the available inventory this summer is already booked. 

As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention OKs travel for fully vaccinated peopleand faith in the safety of air-travel is growing, local business owners and tourism agencies say there aren’t enough rental cars to keep up with the number of tourists expected to fly into Glacier International Airport. 

For those without a car rental reservation already, Glacier Raft Company co-owner Cassie Baldelli is pointing clients toward private car rental apps like Turo. There’s also hope more locals will become Uber drivers.

"It’s been fairly unreliable in the past, but knowing that there is a car rental shortage, we’re hopeful that maybe that will encourage more drivers to partake in that," Baldelli says.

The rental car shortage has been caused by alack of semiconductors, which has stymied car production during the pandemic. Dale Duff is the owner of the local Hertz franchise and says many of the cars he and other Flathead car rental companies ordered last year were canceled.

"We’re faced with a definite shortage of cars and the airline industry has had enough faith in us to bring more seats in here. So, we have a definite problem."

He estimates there will be 2,000 fewer cars available to rent this summer. At the same time, there will be 50,000 more seats available on flights landing at Glacier International Airport this summer compared to 2019, which was a record-year for the airport. 

But if people are unable to rent a car, they may not book that flight.

"Yes, I think it’s going to have as of yet, an unmeasured negative effect," Duff says.

This rental car crunch comes as the broader tourism industry is also trying to recover from the 2020 season. Racene Friede with Glacier Country Tourism Marketing says, "Bed tax numbers for all of 2020 were down 21 percent."

Friede says most of the downturn in people traveling to the Flathead area came early in the pandemic, but a large number of people drove to the Flathead and Glacier in mid-summer and early fall.

"We generally anticipate kind of a drive market of about 600 miles. Our drive market last year was all the way to Florida. People were just jumping into vehicles and they were going on that road trip. That could roll over into the 2021 season."

Friede expects demand for the Flathead and Glacier’s wide-open spaces to be sky high again this year. She says roadtrippers could be the saving grace once again if the rental car shortage proves to be a limiting factor on the number of tourists flying in.

But businesses aren’t taking any chances. Back at the Hertz Rental Car office, owner Dale Duff says he and others are looking at options like using a local winter ski bus or the county public transit system to transport tourists who land here without a rental car.

"We’re talking to public other carriers and Uber that what can we do to focus on Glacier International Airport to help with this issue."

Duff says the tourism industry just needs to make it through this summer as production is expected to return to normal levels by next year. 

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.