‘Flying’ a Private Airport

Branson Airport, Missouri, celebrated its first commercial flights on May 11, 2009. (AirTRAN)

After three months in operation, Branson Airport reports that it is doing well.  By Carroll McCormick.

Branson Airport, Missouri, celebrated its first commercial flights on May 11, 2009. (AirTRAN)

Having barely begun its life as the first completely private commercial airport in the United States, Branson Airport (BKG) reports that its commercial and general aviation (GA) traffic is exceeding expectations.  AirTRAN Airways, which flies twice daily to its Atlanta hub: “is performing beyond our expectations,” says airport Deputy Director – Marketing and Air Service Development, Eugene Conrad.  “We have been so busy on the GA side that we are looking to expand our GA ramp.”
Branson Airport took just under two years to build, in the entertainment ‘Mecca’ of Branson, Missouri.  It celebrated its first commercial flights on May 11, 2009, made by AirTRAN and Sun Country Airlines.  AirTRAN launched its services with one flight a day to its Atlanta hub and to Milwaukee, flying a Boeing 717 with 117 seats.  It dropped the Milwaukee route on July 6 and added a second daily flight to Atlanta: the carrier has connecting flights to over 50 destinations in its network.  Sun Country flies its 134-seat Boeing 737-700 three times a week to Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis.
The Branson JetCenter provides the usual GA services such as fuelling, de-icing, hangarage and flight planning.  Its Executive Terminal, which resembles more a luxury resort than pilots’ digs, has a conference room, wi-fi and a pilot’s lounge filled out with entertainment goodies like flat-panel LCD and a movie library.  There is even a ‘sleep room’ and putting green.
The 50,000 sq ft (4,644m2) main airport terminal has four gates, and currently two retail outlets: Famous Dave’s restaurant and Bass Pro Shops General Store.  The terminal is wired for free wi-fi.  Currently, 47 employees work directly for the airport and another 100 or so for the airport tenants. The airport employees do the ticketing and ground handling.  AirTRAN and Sun Country’s only on-site staff are their respective station managers.  “If airlines want to bring their own staff they can, but we – the airport – provide all the services they need,” Conrad says.
The airport’s maintenance staff will operate the winter services equipment, consisting of a de-icing truck, ploughs and other items.
Branson Airport LLC, founded in 2002, built the facility on a 922-acre (373.4-ha) site.  A 7,140ft (2,176m) runway can handle aircraft as large as the Boeing 767.  There is a CAT I Instrument Landing System for Runway 32, and both runway ends (32/14) have GPS & LPV.VNAV approaches.
Funding consisted of $115 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds and $40 million in equity put up by the airport’s founders. In order to secure the revenue bonds, the airport turned its ownership over to Taney County, which then signed a long-term lease agreement with the airport.
Aircraft pay a per-enplanement (ie per-passenger) fee to the airport, and the town of Branson pays the airport $8.24 for each passenger who flies into it.  There are no landing fees and GA charges are waived with a minimal fuel purchase based on the aircraft type.
So why build in Branson, which has a population of just 7,500 and is tucked away in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains?  This town draws 7 to 8.5 million visitors a year, depending on whom you ask.  Branson Airport would be happy to take on any of those travellers, 5 million of whom come from more than 300 miles (480km) away.  However, explains Conrad: “We are trying to generate new visitors who wouldn’t have come because of the difficulty in getting here.”  Because the airport is privately owned and owes no grant-borne allegiance to the State, it can offer airlines what other airports cannot ‑ exclusivity on a given route.  “This [freedom from competition],” Conrad says, “is the biggest thing we can offer them.”