Branson Builds the First Commercial Airport in the US Without Government Money

Last Updated Nov 27, 2008 11:15 AM EST

The airport business is an interesting one in the US in that it's generally considered a public utility. Cities or airport authorities tend to run most airports, and all of them take federal funds. Now, for the first time in the US, an airport is being built for commercial service completely via private funding. I had the chance to sit down with the folks building the Branson Airport on my recent road trip, and I have to say, this is going to be very interesting.

Branson Airport TerminalThere's a good chance you've heard of Branson but you likely haven't been there. I've always thought of it as a country music capital, but apparently it's just known for all different types of shows these days, and there's also a growing convention business. Of the 8.4 million visitors per year (a speck compared to the nearly 40 million that visit Vegas), 5.4 million come from beyond 300 miles yet only 5% fly.

There's probably a good reason for that. Branson is located about an hour or more away from Springfield's airport, the nearest commercial airport. There is a decent amount of service to Springfield from legacy carriers and their regional partners, but it's relatively high fare service.

People got together in Branson and realized that Branson, being a low cost destination market, needed to have low fare air service if it wanted to get more people to come by air. But instead of getting low cost service to come to Springfield, they decided to just build their own airport instead.

Now the new airport is rising out of the mountain tops about a 15 minute drive from Branson, and they're doing it for relatively cheap. To flatten the tops of the mountains, build a 7,000 ft runway, erect a terminal, construct a control tower, and create a 2.5 mile access road with 2 bridges has only cost $155 million. That's $35 million in equity with the balance in debt. As a comparison, Indianapolis spent $1.1 billion on its new (much larger) terminal and control tower.

The airport is scheduled to open next spring. While no airline tenants have been announced, they say they expect to have an announcement in the near future. It's unclear to me whether this will be a financially successful venture or not. Yes, Branson it a growing tourist destination, but it's still not that big. And the airport has planned for 180,000 enplanements in the first year - that's nearly 500 per day and that seems aggressive.

But whether it's successful or not, this is a good test case for the feasibility of building an operating an airport without government money. I'll talk more about that tomorrow.

Quick update on 12/12 @ 154p - The title of this post isn't completely accurate. As far as I can tell, this is the only airport around that doesn't take government funds, but that has probably not always been the case historically. I'm sure airports (aka grass fields) were built back in the early days of aviation without funds. This is only referring to modern times.