Branson's new airport is tiny, and privately owned

But voters twice rejected paying for an airport. So in 2000, Patch hooked up with Aviation Facilities Co. (AFCO) of McLean, Va., and they devised plans to build a private airport. In 2003, Steve Peet, a former bond trader and AFCO investor, became a passionate promoter of the idea and led a group of investors, including a unit of Citigroup, that in 2005 formed Branson Airport LLC. AFCO stayed on to manage construction of the airport, and Peet has stayed on to become the airport's CEO.

The Branson promoters' idea is largely a new one in the USA. Most airports have been built with taxpayer dollars or by quasigovernmental authorities using public financing or government-backed vehicles such as bonds. But it's an idea that is catching on.

Going private has advantages. It would enable cities desperate for better air service to short-circuit the slow and frustrating political, regulatory and financial processes involved in building or expanding airports. It also would let them unlock the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their airports by selling them, doing long-term lease deals or letting for-profit groups operate them.

More than a dozen cities, such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and Long Beach, are exploring some form of privatization

Most recently, Chicago struck a deal to sell Midway Airport to an investment group led by a unit of Citigroup for $2.5 billion, only to see the deal collapse last month. Investors cited tough credit market conditions that made it impossible to secure the loans needed to complete the transaction. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is expected to put Midway back on the market, even if it means lowering the price to $1.5 billion.

Skeptics point out obstacles

"It's a copy-cat business," says Oris Dunham, the retired head of Airports Council International, the global trade group for airport operators. "I don't think airport privatization will go crazy in this country. But if Branson works, it'll probably give a few other cities the courage to try it."

Dunham cautions that public officials who sit on airport boards around the nation like their positions. "When it comes time to make the deal, most won't want to give up that power," he says.

Industry consultant Mike Boyd advises small and midsize airports on service development matters, and he's more skeptical.

Branson Airport is not likely to be the vanguard of airport privatization, he says. It's too hard disentangling existing airports from their government financial and legal tethers, he says, and financial prospects at most airports probably aren't good enough to justify the risk.

In Branson's case, Boyd says, the local population is too small, and the region's attractions aren't sufficient to consistently generate sufficient traffic for profitable air service.

"I hope they can do it. I wish them well. I just don't see how it's going to work," he says.

Backers: It's 'going to work'

Peet, the Branson Airport CEO, says the key to success is attracting airlines, especially low-fare carriers, to bring value-seeking tourists from distant parts of the country.

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