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Sun Country Airlines is one of two airlines flying commercial flights from Branson Airport. The Minnesota-based airline flies to Minneapolis and Dallas.
Sun Country Airlines is one of two airlines flying commercial flights from Branson Airport. The Minnesota-based airline flies to Minneapolis and Dallas.

Airport officials: Competition could be driving down fares

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May was a busy month in the Springfield skies - and the activity could be helping drive down fare costs.

On May 6, the Springfield-Branson National Airport opened its $117 million midfield terminal, and just five days later, the $155 million, privately owned Branson Airport opened its doors.

While it's a bit early to tell how the airports' close proximity will affect each site's traveler volume, customers stand to reap the benefits of the competition.

Springfield passenger numbers for May, the latest available, showed a year-over-year increase for the first time in nearly two years. May numbers were up 17 percent to 81,496 compared to May 2008. That uptick means that the year-to-date total for the Springfield airport is fairly steady - down just 2 percent - compared to the same period in 2008.

Gary Cyr, director of aviation for the Springfield facility, said there are several reasons for the increase - not the least of which is the May addition of direct flights to Los Angeles International Airport via Allegiant Air.

He also noted increased marketing efforts in conjunction with the opening of the new terminal and said strong monthly passenger numbers from American and United airlines boosted May totals.

Branson Airport Executive Director Jeff Bourk declined to disclose specific passenger numbers for the private airport, but he said AirTran Airways' addition of flights to Atlanta is a sign of strong performance - even though the airline is shelving a Branson-Milwaukee route.

"That's a very good sign that things are going well; (Atlanta is) their hub, and you can get to 43 destinations from there," Bourk said. "That's most important to us, that our network carrier is very happy with the loads and how the service is doing."

Flying on the cheap

While officials in Springfield and Branson have said they don't see the two airports as direct competitors, Springfield's Cyr conceded that the addition of the Branson airport might be temporarily helping to decrease fares to the destinations that both airports cover. One example is Atlanta, which Springfield passengers reach via Delta.

Round-trip flights from Springfield toAtlanta in mid-July, for example, are available for as low as $150 through Delta's Web site.

"It's very difficult to correlate the AirTran service into Atlanta with our service, but I think there's probably been some massaging of fares and charges into that airport on the Delta side," Cyr said. "But we have no idea what effect we have on (Branson) or what effect they have on us."

Bourk, citing $99 flights from Branson Airport to Boston, agrees that the competition is likely helping to keep fares down.

"When you're traveling, we want you to consider all your options and use what works best for you," he said. "But with the fares that we're seeing, there will be more and more people using both airports."

There are other reasons fares are dropping, and those, too, are boosting airline ticket sales, Cyr added, noting that he recently flew round-trip to Philadelphia for about $240.

"The airlines are still sorting out how to approach where they are with fuel costs, the economy, the drop in passengers and the most productive routes, so it's probably going to stay in flux through the summer," Cyr said.

"But if people are prudent and do their research, and aren't so dependent on having direct routes, they can get good fares," he added.

Industry struggles

Springfield airport spokesman Kent Boyd said he's more worried about the challenges facing the airline industry as a whole than he is about competition from Branson at this point. He noted that industry experts say airlines will cut overall capacity by another 8 percent by the end of the year, in an effort to boost dropping fares by decreasing supply.

Capacity at the Springfield airport for flights in August 2009 is down nearly 17 percent from August 2008, according to information from the June Official Airline Guide.

Much of that drop can be traced to the elimination of service to Cincinnati and Detroit in the last eight months.

At the Branson Airport, direct flights to Milwaukee will cease after July 6, in exchange for the added Atlanta flights.

Bourk said that while it is disappointing to lose service to Milwaukee, he was encouraged by what the early flights revealed about passenger demand.

"(AirTran was) putting 40 to 50 people on that plane from Milwaukee, which is about the same as what they're doing from Atlanta, but there aren't the number of connections from Milwaukee," Bourk said. "We're happy with Milwaukee in that it proved that there are passengers from that region that want to come to Branson."

AirTran as a whole, however, has been cutting back on flights. The company's passenger numbers in May were down more than 9 percent from 2008, while load factor - the number of available seats filled - was down only 1.3 percent. That means that the drop in passengers is as much a result of fewer available seats as it is a sign of less demand.

Bourk added that AirTran will likely revisit the Branson-Milwaukee route next year.[[In-content Ad]]

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