High from a jet on approach, this airport looks like something built in a jungle by Navy Seabees.
The 7,200-foot runway lies flat across the tops of seven beheaded mountains, accessed by a narrow road that winds through the dense trees. Easy to imagine a jeep racing out to the flight line.
But, really, 10 miles away, Yakov Smirnoff is telling jokes. Banjos fill the air, splashes fill swimming pools and the Oak Ridge Boys are singing about Elvira. People eat all they can eat — and then eat some more.
About 8 million people come each year to the famous Branson strip and the town’s 18,000 hotel rooms. Most drive. A lot come on charter buses. Because going back to 1959 when the Baldknobbers opened the first live music show, Branson went 50 years without a commercial airport.
Then about six years ago, huge earth-moving equipment busted through 422 acres of Ozark wild south of town and pushed the tops off those seven mountains. They moved more than 11 million cubic yards of dirt to build that plateau, at the time one of the biggest such projects in the country. The first plane landed at the new Branson Airport in 2009.
Now with the first privately developed, privately operated commercial airport in the country and a new convention center, this town that had a boom for the ages in the 1980s could be primed for another.
The airport made it easier to get there. In March, it got even easier when Southwest Airlines began direct fights from Dallas, Houston and Chicago. One connection opens Branson to the coasts.
“Southwest was a huge win,” said Lee McPheters, an economics professor at Arizona State University who did a study on how an airport would affect Branson tourism.
One thing airport studies invariably show, McPheters said: People spend more when they fly in to a place.
Frontier Airlines had already begun nonstop flights from Denver.
Officials expect Branson to remain a “rubber tire” destination, but acknowledge, too, that the airport could over time shake up Branson demographics, which tend to lean Midwestern and senior.
“My grandmother would love to get on a bus with a bunch of her friends for a 10-hour ride to Branson,” said Jeff Bourk, the airport’s executive director. “My mother would not want to do that and I wouldn’t consider it.”
Unlike other commercial airports in the country, Branson gets no federal grant dollars and, accordingly, less government red tape. That doesn’t mean TSA is not on-site; it is.
Bourk works for a corporation, not a city, county or port authority. After construction, Branson Airport LLC gave the facility to Taney County, but operates it under a 45-year lease.
“There’s no other airport like it,” said Bourk, who last year was named the industry’s Best and Brightest Under Forty by Airport Business Magazine.
“Whatever mistakes we make are ours,” he said.
The unusual setup probably goes unknown by passengers.
They might notice some things, though, that make this airport different. Beyond the hog tracks in the terminal floor.
The maintenance guy painting lines on the runway? He might be armed because his main job is police officer. The landing crew on the tarmac could be firefighters.
Because of limited flights, now about a dozen a day, employees are hired for certain jobs but expected to perform other duties on downtime. One day last week, firefighter Katie White worked police duty.
“Last winter I hung Sheetrock,” she said while watching security monitors.
“She also built our picnic tables,” Bourk said.
The airport has also turned into an Ozarks version of Rodéo Drive. You might see Roy Rogers Jr. walking through the terminal. Or Pam Tillis or Shoji Tabuchi. Mickey Gilley passes through often.
When the airport first opened, Andy Williams asked for a tour. Lee Greenwood once entertained the holding area with an a capella version of “God Bless the USA.”
Charlie Camirand, the airport parking manager — who also works in the gift shop and as a ticket agent and a firefighter and who does snow removal in winter — has a favorite.
“I love Tony Orlando,” he said. “He always says ‘hi’ to me. I take care of Tony.”
In 1882, Reuben Branson opened a general store and post office in the hills south of Springfield just short of the Arkansas line.
If he could see 76 Country Boulevard today, he would probably think that he’d be making a killing at that old store.
It all started with the Baldknobbers. Shepherd of the Hills and Silver Dollar City came soon after. The 1980s brought the boom times that would lead to more than 50 theaters.
Most recently, Branson Landing opened in 2006 on the downtown waterfront. The Branson Convention Center, anchored by the 290-room Hilton Branson Hotel, came a year after that.
But the airport didn’t have an easy start.
“We opened in the worst economy since the Great Depression,” Bourk said.
Then in 2011 part of the runway collapsed. In August, Branson Airport LLC sued the Kansas City engineering firm Burns McDonnell and three other firms for negligence.
In a statement, Burns McDonnell denied the allegations, saying that it remained proud of the work it did and that it was not hired for runway soil testing.
Repairs were made. The attorney for the airport has emphasized the airport continues to operate safely and is expected to serve 140,000 passengers this year.
According to Bourk, an economic impact study to be released by the state of Missouri will say the airport has generated $90 million in new revenue for the area and created 1,500 jobs.
Ross Summers, president of the Branson Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the airport will be a key component in taking Branson from strictly an entertainment venue to a convention city.
“It really opens us up to corporate travel and conventions,” Summers said.
Before, travelers had to fly into Springfield and then arrange ground transportation for the hour drive south.
Currently, only about 4 percent of Branson travelers arrive by air. That is expected to change.
“Southwest (Airlines) doesn’t come into a market on a whim,” Summers said. “They have vetted this town. They know we have what they’re looking for.”
Deer heads on the terminal wall and hog tracks in the concrete floor pretty much say Branson.
Look up. Those wood beams are from a buggy factory. Decorative awnings — corrugated tin from Missouri barns.
Rocking chairs. Country music on the loudspeaker.
Mary Jane Elbert and her husband sat in the holding area last week waiting for a flight to Denver.
They could have flown out from Springfield, where they live.
“But I love the way this airport feels,” she said.
Barry and Flora Bush flew in from Ogunquit, Maine, for a reunion of Barry’s classmates from Oklahoma State University.
“We wouldn’t have made it without the airport here,” he said. “This made it easy.”
Plus, it was their first trip to Branson. They stayed on the strip at the Hotel Grand Victorian.
“Right across from the Ducks,” Barry said, referring to the Ride the Ducks amphibious tour vehicles.
Then he smiled: “First thing we did.”
Bourk, 41, a New Englander, sees every landing and takeoff from his office window. He soloed at 16, got his pilot’s license at 17. He was managing an airport in Maine when he got involved with Branson.
“It was terribly exciting — we were going to build an airport from the ground up,” he said in his office. “I wanted to be part of that.”
So he loaded up the family and moved to a place he’d barely heard of. His daughter, 8, and son, 4, love it there, he said.
And the wife? Loves it too, Bourk said.
“She’s getting pretty good at go-carts.”