Southwest Airlines announced on Dec. 5 that it will halt service to Branson Airport next year. Branson Airport is the only privately built commercial service airport in the United States, and there were high hopes that it would serve as a model for private airport operations across the county. The Show-Me Institute has been interested in this project since the early days as an example of private sector possibilities for U.S. airports.
Unfortunately, the airport has had trouble from the start. Timing didn’t help, as the airport opened in 2009, just months after the onset of the largest post-war recession in American history. Falling demand for air service and “capacity discipline” from air carriers meant actual passengers at Branson fell far short of meeting both expectations and operating expenses. In 2011, Branson Airport LLC went into debt forbearance. On top of these financial woes, the airport’s runway has had structural problems that led the airport to sue the construction contractor.
Southwest’s decision in early 2013 to begin service to Branson Airport looked promising to help save the venture from financial demise. Passenger levels increased, but not enough to satisfy Southwest’s bottom line. So on Dec. 5, the airline announced it would end service to Branson as well as two other small airports.
While no one wants to see Branson Airport fail, the overall story is one that shows the benefit of using the market to build transportation infrastructure. Private developers saw an opportunity and took a risk. As it turned out, actual demand is falling short of projections. A private company sought to make a profit and now they, not local taxpayers, may pay the cost.