Missouri’s new Branson Airport struggling to keep fliers
By Thomas Gounley
The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — For the third straight year, the number of passengers flying out of Branson Airport declined in 2016.
As of the end of October, 5,149 people had boarded a plane at the airport in 2016 — a drop of 63.5% compared to the same 10-month stretch in 2015. Depending on the month, more than a quarter to almost half of airplane seats left the facility unoccupied.
The privately owned and operated Branson Airport has been challenged by the consolidation of the airline industry, which has resulted in reduced competition among airlines and decisions by the largest carriers to focus on more profitable routes.
The 2016 decline in enplanements, an industry term for boarding passengers, furthers declines Branson has experienced in recent years.
The airport opened in 2009 and peaked in 2013 at 113,584 enplanements for the year. In 2014, however, Branson’s two mainline carriers — Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines — pulled out of the market. The airport ended the year with just shy of 60,000 enplanements.
The mainline carriers have been replaced by public charter flights, offered in the hope that they will demonstrate a demand for air service from Branson. In 2015, enplanements dropped to 15,732, a year-over-year decline of 73.6%.
July was the busiest month at Branson Airport in 2016, with 1,332 enplanements, compared to 3,303 in 2015. February, March and April were the slowest — no passengers boarded a plane during those months.
Branson Airport’s commercial service ran through late November this year, but figures pertaining to the month were not available as of press time. Even stellar November figures would leave the airport well short of its 2015 performance in terms of passenger count.
The airport does not itself release the statistics, but they are included in publicly posted reports issued to bondholders. The reports indicate that Branson Airport LLC had a net loss of about $11 million through the first three quarters of 2016.
Branson had nonstop service to four cities in 2016.
Buzz Airways operated flights under the Branson AirExpress name to New Orleans and Austin four times a week between late May and mid-August. Elite Airways, meanwhile, offered flights to Denver and Houston starting in mid-July.
When the Elite Airways service was announced, it was billed as daily service, and Branson Airport Executive Director Jeff Bourk told the News-Leader that, while the schedule was only set through late November, he hoped the flights would continue year-round.
The flights, however, ceased for the year in late November. Bourk said this month they had been offered on a daily basis for a period, and three or five times a week during other parts of the schedule. Bourk said it was challenging to get the data to justify continuing service through the winter given that the service had only been offered for four months.
Bourk said the airport is currently working on its 2017 offerings, with the goal of expanding service.
Earlier this month, the Taney County Partnership — a private-public group that focuses on economic development — said in a news release that a recent economic impact study conducted by Arizona State University found that Branson Airport had a total economic impact of $454.8 million between 2010 and 2015, and that the fiscal impacts from tax collections totaled $14.5 million.
The study itself, which was commissioned by the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, was not released. The partnership said in the release that the study found the airport supported 688 jobs annually on average, in terms of both jobs at the airport and jobs in the community supported by visitors who arrived by air. The release said the airport’s economic impacts peaked in 2013 — the same year the airport saw the greatest number of passengers — and then declined in 2014 and 2015.
“The key to restoring economic impact from the airport on the local economy is to grow air service,” Bourk said in the release.
The partnership said in the release that the Taney County Partnership and the Air Service Development Committee have worked to spur both public sector and private sector investment in a fund designed to return Branson Airport service to key markets. The fund includes $1 million from the public sector, specifically from Taney County, the city of Hollister and the Taney County Enhancement District. The level of private-sector investment was not disclosed, but was said to be “significant.”
Springfield-Branson National Airport on track for all-time highs
While Branson Airport saw declines in 2016, its neighbor an hour to the north is expecting a record year.
Through the end of November, Springfield-Branson National Airport had 438,007 enplanements, up about 3.9% compared to the same period in 2015. On average, flights this year have been 79.7% full, according to numbers provided by an airport spokesman.
When talking with the public, the airport generally focuses on total passengers, which includes enplanements and deplanements. Spokesman Kent Boyd said he expects to finish 2016 with total passengers up about 4% over the 2015 record of 913,395.
Springfield-Branson is served by four airlines: Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Combined, those carriers provide non-stop flights from Springfield to Chicago O’Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, Denver, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, St. Petersburg (Fla.), Orlando Sanford and Punta Gorda (Fla.).