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Springfield, MO

Airport nearly lands 1 million-passenger goal

Activity is up 4 percent on added flights and larger aircraft, testifying to a healthy southwest Missouri economy

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Brian Weiler, director of aviation at the Springfield-Branson National Airport, is drawing the nectar of a flowering regional economy.

Weiler said the airport in 2017 landed shy of its 1 million-passenger goal, but with 993,129 total travelers, last year proved the busiest on record for the municipally owned facility. The total passenger count is up 4 percent from 2016 and up nearly 36 percent from 2011.

The burgeoning count, Weiler said, is firmly rooted in local economic growth, among other factors such as added flight options and larger aircrafts being made available.

“We’ve been averaging about twice the national average of growth and have been one of the faster growing airports of our size,” he said, noting the airport is drawing more interest from airlines as a result.

And the community has been busy. Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said the region in 2017 added more than $36 million to its annual resident payroll.

Morrow said unemployment for the five-county Springfield metropolitan statistical area sits at about 2.7 percent, essentially representing full employment.

“The biggest problem with unemployment right now is that it’s so low that employers are having a very difficult time filling openings,” he said.

Meanwhile, Morrow said completing nearly a dozen chamber economic development projects last year – collectively representing almost $74 million in capital investments – helped drive growth.

Atop those projects, Morrow said, stood a $43 million expansion of 3M in Springfield that created more than 100 jobs paying approximately twice the area’s average annual salary of $36,000.

“Things are pretty positive right now, and that’s backed up by the projects that we worked last year,” he said, adding that just north of 1,000 area jobs were created overall to outpace job creation via chamber projects during the past three years combined.

At the Springfield-Branson National Airport, Weiler said attaining 1 million passengers remains a benchmark he plans to beat in 2018.

“Does it mean that we’re going to get more money from the [Federal Aviation Administration]? No,” Weiler said. “But, when you reach 1 million passengers, airlines take you a little more seriously. You open yourself up to interest from more vendors.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about for a few years – and we’re actually implementing right now – is a significant expansion of our restaurant and bringing on another restaurant brand.”

Some $750,000 of expansion and renovation work is underway for the airport’s food service options. Officials have told Springfield Business Journal they seek to rebrand the in-house restaurant, currently dubbed Seasons, while growing the space by 50 percent. And McAlister’s Deli plans to stay on as a vendor.

As for airlines, he said Allegiant Air this summer plans to add four or five more flights per week from Springfield. The airline currently runs 12 to 15 flights per week during the off-season, and during the summer peak season, Allegiant averages between 20 and 25 flights per week.

Those new flights should produce at least 6,000 additional passengers in 2018, Weiler said, as Allegiant sends more planes between Springfield and Las Vegas, as well as two Florida stops: Destin-Fort Walton Beach and Punta Gorda.

Destin-Fort Walton was added this past year, along with a direct flight to Houston, Texas, by United Airlines Inc.

Allegiant expanded Los Angeles flights in 2016 to become a year-round option.

In 2015, American Airlines Inc. added service to Charlotte, North Carolina, an option that Weiler said spurred the later additions. Moreover, he said, the added flights are being paired with larger aircraft.

Airline companies in 2017 collectively added more than 31,000 seats for sale in the local market, according to an airport news release.

“That trend continues in the new year,” Marketing Director Kent Boyd said in the release. “United, for example, has 48 percent more seats for sale in the first quarter of this year than last.”

United, Allegiant, American and Delta Air Lines Inc. serve the Springfield-Branson National Airport, currently providing nonstop flights to 13 destinations that include Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando, Florida.

But there is a downside. Weiler said the airport might be maxed out at that number.

“The low hanging fruit has already been taken,” he said. “I mean, we’re up to 13 destinations right now, direct destinations. We have not actually been able to find another airport that serves a metropolitan area of the same size that has as many destinations.”

He said one goal in the works is to secure a direct flight to the Northeast, as well as a new westerly route, perhaps to Minneapolis or Salt Lake City.

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