Long-time readers of the blog know that I’ve been following the development of Branson airport with interest. I even took a tour of the place back in 2008 when they were still building it out. Branson has actually done a decent job of attracting new service, but they’ve decided it’s not enough. If nobody else will do it, they’ll do it themselves. (And no JetBlue, I’m not singling you out in the pic – your name just sounds closest to Jobu, for those who get the reference.) I think this might work.
First let’s do a brief recap here. For those who don’t know, Branson sits in the southwest corner of Missouri, smack in the middle of the Ozark mountains. It’s a big regional destination for music and shows, but it’s never really become more than that. Until last May, the city was served only by the Springfield airport, about an hour north of town. Springfield is like many small towns in that it has limited service, mostly on regionals, to hub cities. It also has service from Allegiant, but that’s meant to take people out of town to hot spots, not bring them in. The people of Branson weren’t happy.
So some investors got together and decided to actually fund the building of an airport 15 minutes outside of town. The airport was literally built on a mountain. It’s a heck of an interesting site to see. But what’s most interesting is that they haven’t taken any public funding for the airport, so they have a lot more mobility. For example, they can offer exclusive access to an airline who comes in from a certain city.
They built this new airport for a small sum – seriously. It only cost $155 million to get it ready for service, and that includes razing the top of the mountain. When they built the airport, the hope was that they could attract low cost carriers from around the country to service the place for cheap. The goal was to expand the catchment area and make it easier to visit.
AirTran was the first to dive in with service to Atlanta. They added Milwaukee, but that failed. They now also have weekly service to Orlando. Sun Country also came in with service to Dallas and Minneapolis, but that’s not flying now. Branson Airport’s website says it’s coming back in the spring, but Sun Country doesn’t have it on their route map or in their schedules. Just recently, Frontier announced it will join the party from Denver starting in April.
Branson Airport, meanwhile, has been engaged with consultants galore to try to find ways to bring service in to town. Christmas in Branson is a big deal, so last holiday season, they chartered some airplanes from ExpressJet and flew a few roundtrips to Rockford and Shreveport. At the time, I thought it was a good idea, but I figured its utility was limited to peak seasons. Now, Branson Airport has stepped up to make this a full time deal.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present Branson Air Express. To me, this seems like a similar idea to what we see with Direct Air out of Myrtle Beach. They need visitors and they don’t have enough air service, so they’re going to do it themselves. That’s what Branson is trying, apparently thanks to the advice of consulting firms Seabury Airline Planning Group and Contour Flight.
Branson will be chartering regional jets from ExpressJet to fly to Branson from Austin, Des Moines, Houston, Shreveport, and Terre Haute starting in May. So apparently that Shreveport service must have worked out pretty well last year, but the Rockford service? Guess not.
There’s no website with information, just a booking engine, so it’s hard to get full details. From my random June check, it looks like there’s no flying on Thursday and Sunday, for some odd reason. You’d think those would be big days for a weekend destination, but maybe ExpressJet couldn’t offer them the aircraft time on those days. Austin, Des Moines, and Houston will see service the other 5 days. Terre Haute and Shreveport will get flights Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
So can they make money bringing people in from places like Austin and Terre Haute on a 50 seat jet? I suppose it depends on how they look at this. From a straight flight profitability standpoint, my guess is no. But these guys are looking beyond that. They can make money off people staying in hotels in Branson and signing up for vacation packages. They also have lower costs since they’ll effectively be paying landing fees to themselves. So looking at it holistically, it might just make sense.
At least, some of these might make sense. Terre Haute? That might be a stretch. But we’ll see. It’s an interesting concept. And for ExpressJet, it’s just more money in the bank.