Country music mecca takes a new, private approach to airport

Branson already draws more than 60% of its visitors from more than 300 miles away, and a surprisingly large number from distant cities. Research by the Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau shows that 554 people a day come from the Minneapolis area, 107 a day from the Atlanta area and 598 a day from Dallas/Fort Worth, a seven-hour drive away. Those are the first cities with non-stop air service to Branson.

"There are 5.4 million people working hard to get here," Peet says. "How many more would come here if we made it easier and affordable for them?"

The big network airlines are waiting and watching. But Peet has used the airport's exclusivity rights to attract two discount carriers: AirTran and Sun Country. Because Branson Airport did not accept any government money, it can pick and choose the airlines it will let in.

Another tool at Peet's disposal: low operating costs that reduce carriers' risk. Airlines serving Branson won't have to hire their own ground staff or pay conventional landing fees. Airport personnel will do all the ground chores, such as processing passengers and loading bags. Landing fees will be based on the number of passengers airlines bring in, not the weight of the aircraft, as is usually the case.

Branson Airport, meanwhile, will be paid $8.24 by the city for each arriving passenger, ensuring a stream of income for 30 years. It will be augmented by revenue from aircraft fuel sales and a cut from every transaction at the airport, whether it's the purchase of a sandwich in the restaurant, the sale of fishing lures in a small Bass Pro Shop that'll operate in the waiting area, or a percentage from each car rented by Enterprise, which has exclusive car rental rights.

"If we're not handling 225,000 to 250,000 passengers a year three years down the road, then we'll be in a tough situation," Peet concedes. "But I don't think that's going to be the case.

"We've got a great market to sell. We've got significant capital reserves. And we'll have all these other streams of revenue."

Peet also has set expectations low. Reno gets about 2.5 million air travelers a year, or nearly 68,500 travelers a day, he notes. Discount king Southwest Airlines has 38 flights a day there. But to reach Peet's goal of 250,000 passengers a year, Branson Airport needs only 685 passengers — five to six planeloads a day.

"Reno's got beautiful scenery. Branson's got beautiful scenery. They've got a lake. We've got three lakes. They've got lots of hotel rooms. Branson's got lots of hotel rooms. They're pretty isolated. Branson's pretty isolated. The only thing they've got that we don't are the casinos, and a lot of people don't want to be around gambling.

"What we're doing is going to work."

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