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Airport record signals end of pandemic lull

As passengers return, airport facilities and programs undergo expansion

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Business is brisk at the Springfield-Branson National Airport, where officials recently announced they had achieved a record number of passengers in the month of March.

Some 97,457 passengers came through the concourse in a month, signaling the end of the pandemic slowdown.

Brian Weiler, the airport’s director of aviation, said April also was very strong.

“The first four months of the year, we were running at 98% of where we were for the first four months of 2019, before the pandemic,” he said. “That’s encouraging.”

With increased demand – especially with a pilot shortage and fuel approaching $120 a barrel – comes an increase in prices, Weiler said.

“Airfares are going up significantly, and they’re probably going to continue to go up,” he said, though he noted many analysts predict a slowdown in the late summer and fall.

“I think for Springfield in general, the airport is faring as good as or better than most of our peer airports in the same situation,” he said.

Airport gauge
Weiler said an airport reflects the local economy.

“If the local economy does well, the airport does well,” he said, noting Springfield is well poised because it is diversified in its businesses. “There’s a lot of growth that’s occurring all around, and we’re seeing similar growth in our demand.”

Envoy Air, the largest regional carrier for American Airlines Group Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL), has made an investment in Springfield, operating in the city for three decades and currently running 11 daily flights between Springfield and American’s hubs in Charlotte, North Carolina, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth.

“We have a strong partnership with the city of Springfield and look forward to continuing to serve the market, support businesses and the economy, and connect customers to American’s global network,” said spokesperson Minnette Vélez-Conty.

Envoy opened a maintenance hangar at the airport in December to service its fleet. The 60,000-square-foot hangar holds three Embraer E175 aircraft for maintenance and repair work.

“This maintenance facility reinforces our efforts to provide a safe and reliable operation that will benefit our customers, employees and the city of Springfield,” Vélez-Conty said.

The upward trend in local air travel was noted by Mark Burgess in a recent interview with Springfield Business Journal for its Dynamic Dozen awards that celebrate fast-growing businesses.

Burgess is the owner of Burgess Aircraft Management LLC, which operates OzAir Charter Service at the airport. His company recorded 72% revenue growth 2019-21, with 2021 revenue topping $19 million.

Burgess told SBJ people are eager to return to travel, and many feel that having taken a break in leisure travel, they can justify a private jet.

The company is working to expand its equipment and crew, though airplanes are hard to buy right now. Burgess Aircraft Management purchased a new airplane in 2021, with plans to pick up another soon.

Burgess said his reservation availability is limited now.

“We’re not taking on new clients because we can’t always take care of our existing customer base,” he said in the Dynamic Dozen profile. “If somebody is coming in off the street and wanting to grab an ad hoc trip, we’re probably not going to be able to do that.”

Weiler said every part of the airport is growing, including general aviation, military use, flight training and cargo areas.

“We have generally seen a strong growth in cargo here in the last couple of years,” he said.

UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) flights operate nightly, and the growth in online purchases during the pandemic boosted those businesses.

“We’ve seen a 10% growth in cargo from pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “Last year, we broke 30 million pounds. I think that number’s going to accelerate in the years ahead.”

Weiler said when he came to Springfield in 2011, about 23 million pounds of cargo was moving through the airport annually.

The airport recently accepted a $500,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Transportation and provided a one-to-one match for it to expand its air cargo ramp. According to Weiler, the airport can accept almost any aircraft today, having hosted Air Force One in 2018.

Master plan
Weiler said the airport board is about to start the 12-18-month process of developing a new master plan, a document required for federal funding. The plan forecasts aviation activity and lays out a facility plan to meet the demand over the next 20 years, Weiler said.

“When we go after federal funding, if it’s not shown on the master plan, they won’t even consider it,” he said.

The process includes conversations with all airport constituencies and includes feedback from the public.

“I see us adding four to six gates onto the terminal and possibly adding a parking garage adjacent to the terminal,” he said.

He also pointed to needs for additional restaurants, an expanded general aviation development area and more greenfield space for hangars to be built.

One hangar project is currently underway for Ozarks Technical Community College and its flight school provider, Premier Flight Center LLC. Weiler said the flight school currently shares a hangar with Expedia and border protection officials, but it’s renovating an older hangar used decades ago by the National Guard.

OTC’s aviation program started in 2017 with its classroom and administration space in one building and its aircraft stored some distance away. The hangar renovation will consolidate all flight school operations into one building, Weiler said.

The hangar will be able to store 10 flight training aircraft when it is completed. Contractors are at work painting the interior and installing floors.

“It’s being brought back to life,” Weiler said. “That’s exciting for me. It’s exciting to continue to see all parts of this airport continue to grow.”

Matt Hudson, dean of technical education at OTC, said COVID-19 caused a bit of a downturn in the aviation program, since few people were flying. But it has come roaring back.

“We are back up in terms of enrollment and prospects for that,” he said.

Weiler said the program started with only 20 students, but today there are 70.

“There’s been a huge growth in just five years,” he said.

Hudson said OTC is looking to add an airframe and power plant education program – aka aircraft maintenance – to its flight school. The school has received federal and state money for that program and is working on getting a city and county investment, too.

“We are currently in the design phase of the program, and hopefully we’ll be able to launch that sometime in 2024. There are a lot of approvals that have to occur,” Hudson said.

The Envoy maintenance hangar helps open the door to OTC’s aviation maintenance program, he noted.

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