Eight decades or more into the age of commercial air travel, there aren’t many brand new airports opening these days. A new one—and a privately funded one at that—just opened in the Ozarks, and I had the opportunity to fly out of the new Branson Airport this week, en route to DC.
Branson sits about 45 minutes south of Springfield, MO, the home of competitor Springfield-Branson National Airport. The hyphen showed up about 10 years ago, when the booming music show business boosted Branson’s profile as a vacation destination for middle income mid-America. That only stalled local desire to give the country music mecca its own airfield, and in early 2009 the new, privately funded airport announced that AirTran would begin daily service to Atlanta.
What’s it like? For starters, it was like having an airport to yourself. It's about 20 minutes southeast of Branson, and the last six miles are well off the highway. Parking in the nearly empty lot made it feel more like the air travel of my childhood days: not so many people flying, no lines, and little of the rushing and noise that characterizes terminals today. I parked in the long-term lot, within 60 yards of the door (I paced it off) and alongside only about 20 other cars, and then waited in line with five other people to belatedly add a checked bag to my online boarding pass. (For $15 extra, I was willing to give someone else the job of keeping an eye on my bag during a four-hour layover.) Everyone, from the counter clerk to the TSA agents, seemed a little distracted, trying to serve the few of us that were there with even fewer people. I was untying my shoes and putting my carry-on through the x-ray machine when the blue-shirted TSA woman rushed up to catch me and ask for my boarding pass and ID.
Nonetheless, I was happy with the quickest security clearance I’ve experienced in decades. Shoes retied, I exited the secure area and turned the corner into the terminal: part modern pole barn and part fake Ozarks storefront, right down to the recently weathered wood. The two real establishments—a Famous Dave’s BBQ, housed inside the shell of a pretend sawmill (complete with turning waterwheel) and a Bass Pro Shop’s ‘General Store’—compete visually with the signs for Goldie’s Sawmill, the White River Hotel, and Henry Sullenger’s Saloon. Only the latter made me look twice to see if they were open for business.
Why fly here? Service is pretty limited. AirTran operates one flight a day to Atlanta, which in the future departs at 1 pm (it becomes two flights in early April 2010). That might open up more options than the 2:45 flight I’m taking today, depositing me in Atlanta for almost four hours before heading on to Washington Reagan and arriving at 10:35. But it wasn’t the service that attracted me: it was the $238 fare (taxes included), which beat the flights out of Springfield by $300 during my nearly-too-late search for a ticket. Most compendia of travel tips don’t recommend booking a mere 10 days in advance, but it’s rare for a Springfield-DC round trip come in under $400 in the best of circumstances. In addition, I traded a 15-minute trip to Springfield-Branson for an hour drive, but it’s a nice one through the Ozark hills. Parking here is steeper than it should be: the long-term parking was $12/day, even higher than the $10/day at Springfield-Branson (which I always skip for the off-site parking and curbside service from the car rental companies a half-mile away; a bargain at $6/day).
If your destination is indeed Branson (or something close), this airport does make a lot of sense. It’s about 6 miles off of US 65, at the end of a dead-end road that winds through Troon Golf’s Branson Creek course and attending developments, plus John Daly’s more recent and oddly named Murder Rock course. Along the way, it will probably strike you that you’re not in the middle of typical airport terrain: the last two miles go up, down and mostly through some pretty impressive Ozark river bluffs, whose limestone still shines bright following the recent blasting that created a road here. It’s odd to find road signs warning you about steep hills and sharp curves as you cover the last miles to an airfield.
If you’re visiting Springfield, an hour’s drive will get you to the center of the city, and may be what you’re used to in a larger Metro area. It will also give you a visual introduction to the Ozarks and its limestone that you might miss at the city’s airport on Springfield’s northwest side. And the more southern the location of the family, work, or hotel that brought you here, the less of a premium you’ll pay in transit time.
Don’t expect too many of the amenities available at other airports. Springfield’s new Midfield Terminal opened last spring (only partially in response to the new competition in Branson), and includes what many other airports forgot, or ignore: air travel involves not only passengers, but also people who meet them. There’s no space in Branson’s building for doing anything but checking in, and more than enough space in the ‘terminal’ for those who have. Thankfully, the designer chose to forego the standard airport chairs, opting instead for rustic-looking timber-and-upholstery individual chairs. My rear end was noticeably surprised at being comfortable in such a setting.
Above all, what stayed with me was the quiet and calm. (The few times that I’ve retreated to a frequent flier lounge, I’ve realized how rare that is in airports, and why some folks might pay $400 a year for what I previously thought of as free cookies and Diet Coke.) Of course, both the owner and new tenants of Branson airport are hoping it won’t stay that way, and it won’t. Either traffic will increase, and this bet will pay off, or it won’t, and the runway that’s wedged atop these hollers will go completely quiet. In the meantime, I’m adding it to my list of airports to consider. Hopefully, its presence will generate enough business to bring down fares at Springfield-Branson. Perhaps the hour’s drive will do what the three-hour trip to Tulsa, Kansas City, Northwest Arkansas and St. Louis has yet to accomplish for Springfield residents.