AirTran first airline to sign on at new Branson Airport

— -- An investor group planning the USA's only privately developed and operated commercial airport, in Branson, Mo., has recruited AirTran as the resort destination's first airline.

The discount carrier will operate one round-trip flight a day from its hub in Atlanta starting May 11, when the $150 million Branson Airport opens for commercial service. The fares will start at about $200 round trip, and the airline may launch other routes in Branson in the future, says AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson.

AirTran and Branson Airport officials plan to make a formal announcement Thursday.

Known for its mass-market entertainment and country music shows, Branson, which has about 7,500 residents, has no commercial airport, although it hosted about 8 million visitors last year. Nearly 90% of its visitors drive or take a tour bus, says Ross Summers, CEO of Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Those who fly usually land at Springfield-Branson National Airport, which is 55 miles north of Branson, or Drake Field in Fayetteville, Ark., which is 108 miles south.

Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, says talks are continuing with other airlines, and he hopes to line up other carriers by May.

Construction began in July 2007 after Branson Airport, the company that owns and financed the airport, obtained funding. Its sole 7,140-foot runway has been completed. Its 58,000-square-foot terminal will have four gates, enough to handle about 1 million boardings a year.

Steve Peet, CEO of Branson Airport, says he was a passive investor in past attempts to develop the airport but took an active role in 2004 to spearhead the project. He raised $35 million of equity funding and $114 million in debt financing. Peet is also an owner of McLean, Va.-based Aviation Facilities, an airport consulting company that's also the lead developer of Branson Airport.

Branson will pay the airport $8.24 for each arriving passenger, capped at $2 million a year. Also, much of the airport's land has been donated to the county, which reduces the airport's property taxes.

To attract AirTran, Branson Airport gave the airline exclusive rights to serve the airport from Atlanta and other cities for "a period of time," Bourk says. He declined to elaborate on other assistance. "We're not writing a check for $5 million or anything crazy like that. That's all I can say."