BRANSON, Mo. – In recent years, the Springfield-Branson National Airport has been seeing record ridership. Earlier this season, leaders talked about planning for future expansion to handle the demand. In the meantime, the Ozarks’ other big airport has been struggling to attract more airlines and passengers.
Earlier this year, Sun Country began serving Branson Airport with flights to and from Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Both the airport and passengers believe Sun Country is a ray of hope when it comes to things taking off.
Tony Arnold, a passenger arriving from Minnesota, stated, “It was awesome. We woke up at five this morning and we are already here, so it is much better than driving.”
By the looks of the full flight, and bustling terminal, you’d think things were busy here at Branson Airport.
Kim White, another Minnesota passenger, explained, “It is great that we have the opportunity to drive down here and not do the nine-hour drive.”
But this scene won’t last long. After the passengers grab their bags, and the outbound run taxis out, the place will fall quiet again. It will stay that way for days until the next pair of flights from the Twin Cities comes and goes.
Stan Field, Airport Director, stated, “The terminal gets quiet in between flights and in the wintertime and it is a little bit depressing to walk through a beautiful facility like this and see it not being used. But, we are making a lot of strides so that doesn’t continue”
While the airfield serves plenty of private and charter flights, the two weekly Sun Country round trips are the only commercial flights right now. The new operation comes after several months of no commercial service at all.
Field explained, “I am so excited to see those planes come in.”
FOX49/KOLR10 Investigates has found it has been a revolving situation with major commercial airlines having problems making a go of it here since the place opened in 2009.
AirTran was here from day one and, with a lot of fanfare, was taken over by Southwest in 2013. That carrier pulled out in 2014.
Sun Country was also an original tenant but was gone a year later. Frontier operated flights to and from Branson from 2010 to 2014 and was back in 2018 before leaving again in 2022.
Field explained, “That service was successful. Everything was working until 2020 and Covid. And since 2020 the airline industry has been in turmoil.”
Before the pandemic, the airport had told us it was on the losing end of tough financial times for the airlines, carrier cutbacks and consolidations.
When it opened, developers anticipated 500,000 passengers a year off the bat, and up to 1.5 million by 2014. But things have never taken off.
Since it’s a private entity, the airport isn’t mandated to release passenger numbers. But we can get an idea of how many people are coming through the gates by looking at the City of Branson’s subsidy numbers.
Through information provided by the City of Branson, FOX49/KOLR10 Investigates found the local government pays the airport, through a longstanding agreement, $8.24 per inbound tourist (defined as a passenger without a local address. The money comes from the Branson Tourism Tax.
In, 2023 no payments were made in the first half of the year because there were no commercial airlines. City spokesperson Lisa Rau explained that there will be an invoice to pay for the end of this year covering the months Sun Country was running. 2022 saw $39,205.92 paid for 4,800 people. 2021 saw $57,614.08 for 7,000 people. Meantime, in 2020, the payment was $43,474.24 covering 5,300 people. In 2019, $128,914.80 was the amount paid for 15,600 people. And, in 2018, the city’s payment of $54,392.24 equaled 6,600 people.
The payment agreement does not include non-local tourists flying out of the airport, nor does it include locals (with an area address) flying in or out.
It all adds up to the city paying an amount for 39,000 inbound passengers over the last five and a half years, which is well below what the investors dreamed.
Some of those passengers like the lack of crowds.
Kim White said, “We came two and a half hours early like we normally do, and we were the only ones here- laughs…so we enjoyed our little quiet time here at the airport.”
Tony Arnold explained, “I am already looking forward to going to the bar on Sunday because it doesn’t look very busy, and we are the only flight in and out of here it seems like.”
Quiet is good for passengers, but a business trying to pay bills needs some more noise.
Field explained, “We are excited about the opportunities when they come. We think we have a lot of opportunities to expand service here. We certainly have the demand. People in Branson need to travel. But more important- our tourism economy and needs will support the service.
The Branson Airport is hoping Sun Country’s early success will help them attract other airlines to come on board.
“If we can fly people from all over the US and introduce them to what Branson has, that is great for everyone here and for Branson, Springfield, and even the Missouri area, ” said Field.
Sun County will run flights through this season and, as part of a deal with the airport, has committed to next season as well, at the minimum.