Departures have been down sharply at Branson Airport in 2015, the first full year in which the facility has been without a mainline carrier.
Through the end of October, the number of people flying out of Branson Airport was down 76 percent compared to the same period in 2014, according to a News-Leader review. Depending on the month, between a third and a half of airplane seats left the facility unoccupied.
"By no means do we think the level of service we had this year was what's needed, but it was a good experiment in a way," Airport Executive Director Jeff Bourk told the News-Leader.
Branson Airport opened in 2009 and 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. Branson's last two mainline carriers left the market permanently in 2014. Southwest Airlines — which had been serving the city year round — pulled out of the market that June. Frontier Airlines' last flight from the market was Oct. 25 of that year; the airline had been operating seasonally from the airport and decided not to return to Branson, along with a number of other markets, in 2015.
The mainline carriers have been replaced by public charter flights, often under the Branson AirExpress brand. The flights have been operated by a number of different charter flight companies, such as Orange Air and Elite Airways, and Bourk's hope is they will demonstrate a demand for air service from Branson that will help attract a mainline carrier. Over the course of 2015, Branson Airport had service at times from Branson to Denver, Houston, Austin, Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans — typically three to four times per week, depending on the destination. Air service to New Orleans continued on to Cancun. Flights started at $99 one way to New Orleans and Cincinnati, increasing to about $150 for cities like Austin, and $199 for service to Cancun via New Orleans.
In total, through the end of October, Branson Airport had just over 14,100 "enplanements," an industry term that refers to boarding passengers. That compares to 58,259 in the same 10-month period period in 2014, according to publicly accessible financial documents. July saw the highest passenger count in 2015, with 3,303 enplanements. June and May were the next most popular months to fly out of Branson.
Depending on the month, enplanements accounted for 34 and 58 percent of total seat capacity, a statistic that is known as load factor. May was the month with the highest load factor at Branson Airport in 2015, while September was the lowest.
The last two months of the year historically have had minimal activity at the airport, given the seasonal nature of Branson as a tourism destination; in 2014, there were 1,460 enplanements combined between November and December. Earlier this year, the airport forecast enplanements for the latter half of 2015, as well as the start of 2016; it projected 4,012 enplanements in November and December, which would give the facility about 18,000 for the year. However, that may be optimistic thinking; enplanements ultimately fell short of the airport's projections in July, August, September and October.
Either way, enplanements will be at the lowest in the airport's short history. The facility, which is privately owned and operated, peaked at about 130,000 enplanements in 2013.
In an interview with the News-Leader last week, Bourk noted that Southwest and Frontier were part of a national network, which naturally resulted in a greater demand for air travel from Branson. But the charter service, he said, has been successful at continuing service to many cities that passengers were ultimately trying to travel from, and it will return in some form for 2016. The airport will likely announce specifics this winter.
Winning back a traditional carrier, however, remains a goal. In March, the Taney County Commission approved spending up to $500,000 to help lure an airline, to be paired with $1.5 million from other sources. The money, which has not been spent, is designated as "risk abatement"; it will be used to pay airlines if they moved into the market and fail to at least break even financially.
The only time a mainline carrier associated with Branson Airport this year was on March 31, when billionaire Richard Branson announced that Virgin America would start serving Branson as part of a series of investments in the city. But Richard Branson was just teaming with city and chamber officials for some fun and free publicity. The airport was forced to put out an all-caps notice to bondholders: "THE BOND TRUSTEE IS INFORMED BY THE COMPANY THAT THE ANNOUNCEMENT IS AN 'APRIL FOOLS' PRANK."
Because Branson Airport used tax-exempt municipal bonds to finance its construction, reports documenting the facility's finances are required to be publicly posted at the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board's Electronic Municipal Market Access website. Bondholders and airport management entered into a forbearance agreement in 2011, after the airport defaulted on payments, and in September the parties extended the agreement through June 2016. The outstanding principal amount of the bonds for Branson Airport and its related companies is $113.8 million. Interest on that figure added another $28.4 million as of Sept. 1 of this year.
Through the end of September, Branson Airport had operational losses of $2.4 million in 2015, after losing just shy of $424,000 in 2014. The September forbearance agreement included cash flow projections through March 2016, with operational losses each month.
"I think this year is definitely a building year, and we're looking ahead to 2016 and 2017, and building this air service network," Bourk said.
Springfield-Branson National Airport anticipates record year
Passenger totals at Branson Airport stand in stark contrast to its neighbor an hour to the north.
Through the end of October, Springfield-Branson National Airport had 384,240 enplanements. Spokesman Kent Boyd told the News-Leader this week the airport expects to finish 2015 with about 450,000 enplanements, which would top the previous record of 443,893 set back in 2005. On average, flights were 88.6 percent full.
When talking with the public, the airport generally focuses on total passengers, which includes enplanements and deplanements. The airport expects slightly over 900,000 total by the end of the year; it had 888,738 passengers in 2005.
Springfield-Branson is served by four airlines: Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Those carriers provide nonstop flights to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Orlando, Punta Gorda/Ft. Myers and, as of Nov. 5, Charlotte.
The newly added flights to Charlotte, a hub for American, have the airport optimistic for 2016 totals. The flights are expected to increase total passenger count by about 36,000 over the course of the year. In November, air service consultant Michael Boyd (no relation to the airport spokesman) said he expects Springfield-Branson to have more than a million passengers come 2020.
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