by Carol Harris
SBJ Contributing Writer
Ozark Mountain Management Group LP, which operates the M. Graham Clark Airport at Point Lookout, announced that Aspen Mountain Air surrendered its landing rights at the airport Oct. 5. Aspen Mountain Air had provided daily flight service to and from Dallas/Forth Worth since May 15.
John Greer, president and CEO of SunWestern Management Inc., of Dallas, and general partner of Ozark Mountain Management Group, said the decision to discontinue the use of Aspen was based on the airline's financial situation and its inability to provide reliable service at a sufficient level. The airline, which serves 26 cities, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August.
"Within the first 60 days (of beginning air service), they were flying with 30 to 35 percent loads. When they announced the bankruptcy in August, the passenger volume stopped increasing. Then, in September, it began decreasing," Greer said.
He added that travel agents and tour companies began losing confidence in Aspen after it declared Chapter 11 status. He said, "If people perceive there is a problem, then there is one."
Greer said Ozark Mountain Management Group, which owns and operates the airport terminal on land leased from the College of the Ozarks, has secured new non-stop air service from St. Louis to Branson through Heartland Air.
"Under their new business plan, their focus will solely be on Branson for at least the next 12 months. We ask them to have a hard commitment to this community," Greer said. He said the new service will begin in mid-December, with two flights daily Thursdays through Mondays.
He said, "January and February have been typically slower months for Branson. (Heartland) initially want to create and maintain a presence."
According to Greer, Heartland expects to begin service from Kansas City to Branson in the early spring of 1999. Heartland Air's fleet of de Havilland Dash 7 aircraft 48-seat turbo props will be used on these routes.
Greer said Ozark Mountain Management will also seek other airlines to continue the Dallas/Forth Worth service. He said, "There are about four or five main gateway centers into Branson. Dallas is one of those. It is known as an origination city, bringing in 50,000 to 60,000 visitors from the surrounding area. St. Louis is bigger in terms of providing volumes of people in getting to Branson from other places."
Greer said he met with several area business and civic leaders Sept. 30 to make them aware of the air-service changes. Although the change in air service follows an announcement made two weeks ago about the construction of the new Branson Convention Center, Greer said that his company and John Connelly, the convention center's developer, already have "structured a unique partnership."
"We have an agreement that will benefit him and will benefit us. Our organization is committed to provide cost-effective travel for his conventioneers to get to Branson," Greer said.
However, Greer called the partnership an "arms-length relationship." He said, "There are no joint ventures. There is no cross ownership between any of our entities."
During the 60-day break in air service, airport crews will continue to make improvements at the airport, Greer said. Already, crews have begun grooving the runway to improve water drainage and create better traction. Improvements in signage and lighting are also under way.
By the fourth quarter of 1999, the airport will also have completed the extension of the landing strip to 5,000 feet. "We never intended permanently to operate with a 3,800-foot runway," Greer said.
He said once the runway expansion is complete, all commercial turbo-prop aircraft, and some commercial regional jets, will be able to land at the airport.
Greer said Ozark Mountain Management has already invested $10 million into the infrastructure of runway improvements, the construction of the new 16,000-square-foot airport terminal and tour company operations.
Plans to lengthen the runway and triple the size of the terminal during the next two years will quadruple his company's investment, he added.
A planned extension of the landing strip to 5,000 feet will make it possible
aircraft to land at the airport in Branson. [[In-content Ad]]
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