Airports: Fliers get new choice to north; Officials’ hopes high for privately owned Branson Airport

Airports: Fliers get new choice to north; Officials’ hopes high for privately owned Branson Airport

BRANSON – The new airport here will provide another travel option for people living as far away as Fayetteville, airport officials claim.

Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, said the airport, which opened May 11, also will result in more boardings and cheaper fares at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.

But so far, executives at the regional airport in Highfill haven’t seen any change.

“I don’t know if there has been a Branson impact at all so far,” said Kelly Johnson, manager of the regional airport. “I’ve gotten one call from one customer who said they were going up there because of the price of a ticket to Atlanta.” Johnson said airfares are down 19 percent nationwide so far this year, but that’s because of the national economy and fuel prices.

Located about five miles from the Arkansas-Missouri line, the $155 million Branson Airport is being watched by many people in the industry. It is the only privately owned commercial airport in the United States. It receives no federal funds, which allows its officials flexibility to make business decisions and to act on them immediately.

“It takes the politics out of it from an operational standpoint,” Bourk said.

If the airport did receive federal assistance, any profit it made would have to be invested in the airport. But the airport’s backers, whom Bourk wouldn’t name, want to invest airport profits in different ventures. Bourk said the airport should be profitable sometime next year.

“It’s working,” he said. “There is no way our business is going to fail. We’ve got a major low- cost airline [AirTran Airways] that’s filling planes and making money.” Johnson said she won’t know if the new airport has affected the Arkansas airport’s business until she receives statistics in about six months from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even then, a Branson effect will only be a guess if the number of passengers going to Atlanta, Dallas or Minneapolis – the three cities served by Branson Airport – has increased or decreased. Local passengers could be flying from an airport other than the ones in Branson or Highfill, or travel to those cities might have changed for another reason, she said.

Phil Mayo, owner of Around the World Travel in Springdale, said he has referred one or two passengers to Branson Airport because it was the only option for them based on their travel schedule.

“We have not really made a push down in this area to use them,” he said. “That’s quite a drive. People drive to Tulsa, but the road to Tulsa is a lot better. It’s a lot bigger airport, and the options are better.” According to Google Maps, the driving distance from downtown Fayetteville is 26 miles to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, 92 miles to Branson Airport, 109 miles to Tulsa International Airport, 145 miles to Springfield-Branson National Airport and 191 miles to Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field.

“We believe we offer anybody within a 90-mile drive of Branson a viable, low-cost option,” Bourk said. “It won’t make sense every time, but it’ll make sense some of the time.” It could make financial sense, particularly when flying to one of the three cities with direct flights from Branson Airport – Atlanta on AirTran or Dallas and Minneapolis through Sun Country Airlines.

“I don’t feel that we’re stealing passengers from anybody,” Bourk said. “I think there’ll be more people flying and less people driving to airports four hours away. … We’re taking those people who were driving four hours to Kansas City, St. Louis, Tulsa and Little Rock and bringing them to our airport.” Bourk predicted that boardings at the Springfield airport also will increase, and airfares will come down, because of competition. The Springfield airport is about 50 miles north of Branson Airport.

“We’ve seen it in Springfield and to a lesser degree in Fayetteville,” Bourk said.

`TOO EARLY TO KNOW’

Kent Boyd, a spokesman for the Springfield airport, said he hasn’t seen any change that could be attributed to Branson Airport.

“I think it’s too early to know given the fact that fares are at almost historic lows this season,” Boyd said. “Fares have been down since late spring. … I think it would be great if that airport could bring down fares for everybody, but enough time hasn’t passed. There’s not enough data.” The competition isn’t nearby airports, Bourk said.

“It’s the couch,” he said. “We want people to get off the couch and go someplace.” Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport has more than 50 departures a day to 13 destinations.  It also has flights to two other destinations – Los Angeles and Las Vegas – on a twice-weekly basis. Flights to those two cities are through Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier that provides a scheduled charter service.

Boardings at the regional airport dropped by 7.2 percent in May, compared with May 2008. But that was an improvement over double-digit percentage decreases the airport has had since January. Its 49,500 boardings in May marked the 13th straight month that boardings have dipped in comparison with the same month of the previous year.

Branson Airport currently has one daily flight to Atlanta, but that will grow to two beginning Tuesday. Flights to Dallas and Minneapolis are only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and those are one flight per day each way. The regional airport has four flights a day to Atlanta on Delta Airlines.

“We’ve got a pretty good business market, and the business traveler demands frequency,” Johnson said. “Once a day isn’t going to do that for them.” But Atlanta flights to and from Branson were cheaper when checked Thursday. With a twoweek advance purchase, nonstop fares on AirTran were $104 each way. Nonstop fares from the Highfill airport to Atlanta on Delta Airlines were $527 one way or $465 round trip, for a stay of more than a week. AirTran also offered a $134 one-way fare from Branson to Boston, connecting through Atlanta.

But Johnson noted that fares change frequently.

Marian Yancey, 61, of Yellville, who was touring Branson Airport on Tuesday, said it could be the best deal for her and would save her from driving another hour to Springfield.

“I don’t like going to Little Rock because it’s three hours, and I don’t like the airport situation there,” she said, referring to interstate traffic in the capital city. “In Springfield, it’s just so much easier to get in and out.” Yancey said she’ll check airfares from Branson Airport before she buys tickets for flights out of Springfield or Little Rock.

Boyd said passengers need to check other factors besides ticket prices, such as parking fees and rental car costs. They all factor in to the cost of a trip, he said.

Branson Airport directors expect 250,000-300,000 passengers during the first full year of operations. Bourk wouldn’t reveal boarding numbers for the airport’s first two months, but he said most planes are flying from Branson Airport at near capacity, and many flights have been overbooked.

“We’ve got planes every week that are oversold,” he said. “They’re full.” “We are extremely happy with the performance of Branson-Atlanta,” said Christopher White, a spokesman with AirTran, “and we’re having really, really good response.” So much so that the airline decided to add the second daily Atlanta flight. AirTran will stop operating a flight from Branson to Milwaukee at that time because it had only four connections through that city, Bourk said. Through Atlanta, AirTran has flights that connect to more than 60 destinations.

“People are still taking vacations,” Bourk said. “They’re just taking less-expensive vacations. Branson is a value-oriented destination in times of recession.”

TOURISM FACTOR

The three largest markets for visitors to Branson are Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, in that order, Bourk said.

Branson has 7,435 residents and 37,048 restaurant seats. About 8 million people visit Branson every year, and 60 percent of them come from 300 miles away or farther, according to the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

“That’s an important number to us because that’s a potential air traveler,” Bourk said.

The average visitor to Branson is 56.7 years old and stays 4.2 days. Eighty percent of visitors to Branson travel there by personal vehicle, according to the chamber. Families account for 36.5 percent of visitors.

Branson Airport was built to bring people to the entertainment capital of the Ozarks. The city of Branson pays the airport $8.40 for each tourist that flies into the airport. It wasn’t built with outbound passengers in mind, but it is an option for that market as well.

Bourk said locals, including people from north Arkansas, already are using the airport for outbound travel. About half of the cars in the airport’s parking lot at any given time have Arkansas license plates, he said.

“Absolutely, we want the local people in Harrison, between here and Fayetteville, to shop price,” he said. “The low-cost carrier is stimulating the outbound market.” Harrison, 25 miles southeast of Branson Airport, has no commercial air service. Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison has been without a commercial carrier since June 2008, when Mesa Air Group Inc. dissolved its Air Midwest subsidiary during bankruptcy proceedings.

On June 26, 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation offered SeaPort Airlines of Oregon a contract to serve Harrison and three other Arkansas airports that qualify for Essential Air Service funding through the federal government. That contract, if accepted, has a start date of Oct. 1.

Under the contract, SeaPort would fly to Memphis from Harrison, Hot Springs, Jonesboro and El Dorado. Service would be provided on nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 single-engine, turboprop airplanes. Those planes, however, are much smaller than the aircraft operating from Branson Airport, which include AirTran’s 117-seat Boeing 717s and Sun Country’s 134-seat Boeing 737-700s.

The 58,000-square-foot terminal at Branson Airport was designed to resemble an Ozark Mountain lodge, with rustic wood recycled from barns and buggy factories dating to 1871. It can handle up to 1.5 million passengers a year. The tracks of several animals – bears, wolves, hogs, deer and turkeys – are permanently imprinted in the polished concrete floor in the lobby.

“It looks like a mountain lion got loose in here before they finished it,” said Bonnie Myers, 73, of Rockford, Ill., who was waiting Tuesday for a flight home.

Wrought-iron pine cones hang from the light fixtures in the lobby. Passengers wait in rocking chairs made of tree limbs. Wooden barrels serve as trash cans. A smell of cedar permeates the building.

The city of Branson maintains a counter where an employee provides tourist information. Four electronic kiosks also are there to assist visitors.

In the secure area, passengers can eat at Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant or buy gifts at a Bass Pro Shops outlet. Four gates in the area are shared by both airlines. Branson Airport pays for employees, who serve both airlines through a computer system that allows the four ticket counters to be quickly converted from one airline to another. Bourk said the airport paid an additional $1 million for the ticket counter technology.

Bourk said it took two years to build the airport on one of seven ridges southeast of Hollister, Mo. It required moving 12 million cubic yards of dirt and rock on the 925-acre airport site. The runway is 7,140 feet long.

Bourk said it’s a no-frills operation.

“We keep the costs down,” he said. “Customer service is the main thing.” Bourk said he hopes to add service to the West Coast soon.

“We’re sort of still in the proving stages but think we’ll have another airline signed on soon,” he said.

BY BILL BOWDEN ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

[airportbusiness.com]

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