Image: Branson Airport
Rob Lovitt
After breaking ground in July 2007, Branson Airport is scheduled to open May 11 with a 7,140-foot runway capable of handling 737s and 757s, a 58,000-square-foot terminal with four gates and extensive general-aviation facilities.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/5/2009 6:09:18 PM ET 2009-05-05T22:09:18

There’s just something about that new airport smell.

In Branson, Mo., where a brand-spankin’ new airport is set to open May 11, it’s the smell of fresh-cut cedar, weathered barn wood and stone-cut dust as teams of construction workers race against the clock. Overlaying it all, you can almost catch a whiff of the intense anticipation that surrounds this groundbreaking project.

Branson Airport, it turns out, is not your average airfield. Carved out of the Ozark hills in the southwest corner of the state, the $155-million project is the first privately developed commercial airport in the U.S. As such, it promises to operate in ways unheard-of anywhere else in the country.

First, though, the workers have to finish everything from the check-in counters to the baggage carousel, prompting a pre-opening visitor to ask, “Are you going to make it?”

“We have no choice,” says Airport Deputy Director Gene Conrad. “AirTran and Sun Country will be here on the 11th.”

New approach to an old-time destination
Here, of course, is Branson, the small town/entertainment capital that’s home to 7,500 residents, yet attracts more than 8 million annual visitors thanks to its 50-plus theaters, 100 or more live shows and array of family-oriented attractions. Historically, says Ross Summers, president and CEO of the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, 87 percent of those visitors drove, with the rest flying into Springfield, an hour to the north. “We’ve always been a value destination,” he says, “but getting here wasn’t.”

The proposed solution — a local airport served by low-cost carriers — led to the formation of Branson Airport LLC, the private company created to build and operate the facility. Partnering with a like-minded real-estate developer, the company bought 922 acres of undeveloped land and put together a financing package involving $114 million in municipal bonds, $40 million or so in private equity and zero dollars in federal money.

It’s that last piece of the puzzle that makes the project so unique.

No federal money, no red tape
Branson aside, commercial airports in the U.S. are owned by cities, counties or other public entities and, therefore, subject to the constraints of municipal budgets and bureaucracies. They also receive federal money, which comes with its own snip-resistant strings attached. By bypassing the municipal system and eschewing federal funds, Branson was free to build fast and operate in ways other airports can’t.

After breaking ground in July 2007, Branson Airport will open with a 7,140-foot runway capable of handling 737s and 757s, a 58,000-square-foot terminal with four gates and extensive general-aviation facilities. “From nothing to this in 22 months — that has to be some kind of record,” says Airport Director Jeff Bourk. “If we were a government entity, there’s no way we could’ve done it.”

Going private also allows the airport to operate in unique ways. Unlike the traditional model, they can offer airlines exclusive contracts for service from select cities for a set period of time. “That’s a major incentive to an airline,” says Conrad, “because they know they won’t have to duke it out over fares with anyone.”

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Nor will the airlines have to pay counter staff and baggage handlers as all on-site workers will not be airline employees at all, but rather employees of Branson Airport LLC. (TSA, of course, will still handle security screening.) Presumably, such arrangements will let the airlines keep fares low, allow the airport to provide better customer service and build business for everyone. (The airport will also receive $8.24 from the city of Branson for each new arriving passenger, capped at $2 million per year.)

So far, the airport has signed agreements with AirTran (daily nonstop service to and from Atlanta and Milwaukee) and Sun Country Airlines (nonstop service to and from Dallas and Minneapolis three times per week). And while Bourk and Conrad aren’t talking, it’s clear that they’re in discussions with carriers that serve the western half of the country.

If you build it, they will come ... back
In the meantime, the airport will essentially serve as Branson’s front porch. Stepping off their planes, passengers will enter a great-hall-style waiting area with a Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant, a Bass Pro Shop store and an Ozark ambience marked by weathered wood and a working waterwheel.

Heading to the baggage area cum welcome center, they’ll walk by a live-music stage and large interactive monitors where they can explore local attractions and catch snippets of local performances. If they see something they like — Mickey Gilley singing, perhaps, or Yakov Smirnoff offering a personalized welcome — they’ll be able to visit the concierge desk and buy tickets.

“It’s not a Taj Mahal–like facility,” says Conrad, “but it will have everything you’d expect in an airport, just carried out with an Ozark theme. People are going to walk in, see the water running, smell the wood, then hit the access road through those big limestone cuts. They’re going to realize how beautiful it is here and want to come back again.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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