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Joplin, Branson airports add Chicago flights

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The Windy City is lifting expectations for a big boost in passenger count at smaller airports in southwest Missouri.

Both Joplin Regional Airport and Branson Airport can count on Chicago as a new service option for fliers this summer. Frontier Airlines will provide nonstop flights to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, beginning May 1, while American Airlines Inc. announced in January it would start offering daily, nonstop flights to Chicago on June 7.

“We’re certainly happy that Frontier chose to serve the Texas market and Chicago market with their service,” said Jeff Bourk, Branson Airport’s executive director.

Early last year, Frontier returned to Branson after a several year absence to provide Denver service. Bourk said the Denver-based airline previously served Branson Airport from 2010 to 2014. It joined Via Air, which flies in and out of Austin, Texas, as the only carriers serving Branson.

“I think it was a smart decision,” Bourk said of Frontier’s return last year. “Frontier obviously saw the history in that market and felt it was an opportunity for them.”

Declining to predict the passenger count for 2019, Bourk said both the Chicago and Dallas markets should prove to be attractive for locals and visitors. He added statistics for enplanements – the number of passengers boarding a flight – in 2018 are not ready to be released from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We expect substantial growth over 2018 with Frontier growing in the market,” he said.

Steve Stockam, Joplin Regional Airport manager, also anticipates a big passenger boost with American Airlines’ expanded flight options this summer. The airline currently offers two daily flights to Dallas, which will increase to three in April, followed by the new Chicago flights in June. It is the only carrier serving the airport.

“We project the Chicago service will generate about 48,000 passengers in this next year,” he said, adding the 2018 passenger count topped just over 81,000 – up 16 percent from 2017.

Over the past three years, he said passenger growth has trended up 10-12 percent annually.

The path to Chicago was lengthy.

Dallas service started six years ago, and Stockam said the goal of getting Chicago began pretty much right after that.

Stockam said American tested the depth of the Joplin market to assure flights to Chicago wouldn’t hamper its Dallas flights. Officials tweaked the flight schedules and aircrafts, he added.

“It proved our market is fully capable of handling the additional service, and we feel like it’s going to be very successful,” he said.

Bourk declined to discuss Branson Airport’s contract with Frontier, but Stockam said the air service agreement with American Airlines was approved by Joplin City Council on Jan. 7.

Toby Teeter, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said the agreement includes a $600,000 one-year minimum revenue guarantee with the city and the Chamber of Commerce Foundation sharing fiscal responsibility. The city’s portion of $400,000 will be split from its transportation and convention and visitors bureau funds, while the other $200,000 hinged on Teeter being able to successfully raise the money from pledges by businesses.

“The challenge was for me to get the business community engaged in this additional service and raise $200,000 in pledges that would be held by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation entity,” he said, noting he took on the task Dec. 11, one day after he was hired to succeed Rob O’Brian in the top chamber post. “It took a few weeks, but we quickly got to a pledge count in excess of $200,000.”

Stockam noted American Airlines was comfortable it would only need one year for the revenue guarantee, though it’s typically a two-year agreement.

A bigger challenge for the airline is finding the necessary number of pilots and aircraft to run the route, he said. American will operate a 50-passenger Embraer ERJ-145 regional aircraft.

Tickets are now on sale through the airlines’ websites. Flights from Branson for Dallas and Chicago each start at $29 one way, while Joplin service to Chicago starts at $185 one way.

“The Chicago air service connects Joplin to the world,” Teeter said of the flights that run twice daily and once on Saturday. “It’s really going to help out businesses and consumers, for sure.”

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