Branson prank a boon or bust?

Geoff Pickle, Web EditorI don’t mind a practical joke.

There were a few pulled at Springfield Business Journal’s office April 1, and one in particular had me guffawing.

But when it comes to the Richard Branson/city of Branson prank on March 31, I tend to feel like it could cause more harm than good – at least to Branson Airport.

Working here for nearly five years, I’ve watched the highs and lows for the currently struggling airport. On a personal level, it’s the first airport I ever flew out of as an adult (last year in fact).

Maybe it’s that personal memory of flying on Frontier Airlines to Colorado or a case of rooting for the underdog, but the slight on Branson Airport, I thought, hit a little below the belt – even though Executive Director Jeff Bourk and Branson chamber and city staff members were in on it. It felt a bit tasteless since Branson Airport needs a major carrier arguably now more than ever.

We’re only four months removed from when Frontier announced it was discontinuing service at the airport known by its BKG service code. And that was after Southwest Airlines called it quits last summer after only a year in town.

New Branson chamber and CVB President Jeff Seifried says, in an article that will appear in the April 6 SBJ, that the prank – which involved chamber staff interacting with Virgin Group officials for weeks prior – was a boon to the city.

Definitely, it got the name of the city out there, and according to Seifried, was the social-media event of the year for the community. It more than doubled website traffic to ExploreBranson.com, one CVB official says.

But, I wonder if Bourk and crew really thought it through, or if they really had a choice in the matter.

Less than two weeks ago, the Taney County Commission approved $500,000 in risk-abatement funds to attract a major airline to BKG. Bourk has said he’s in talks with several major carriers.

Is it a good idea to get people’s hopes up when the airport is fighting to remain a player in this region?

The numbers are pretty grim. The airport – which cost $148 million to build – recorded $21 million in combined net operating losses during its first four years in business after opening in May 2009. According to an article on the airport to appear in the April 6 print edition, bonds issued to construct the airport now are selling for around 8 cents on the dollar.

However, with Southwest on board in 2013, BKG recorded $3.9 million in positive operating income, not including depreciation or interest expenses.

BKG will operate this spring with a handful of charter services, which doesn’t seem like enough.

Hopefully, the risk-abatement funds will pay off. And I hope Bourk isn’t being overly optimistic about the chances of grabbing a major carrier.

In the Branson/Branson article – which you can read in the digital edition this afternoon – a Virgin Group official said its Virgin America airline has considered BKG, but there are no concrete details in place.

On April 1, 2004, Google launched its Gmail service with a gigabyte of free storage at a time when others offered pennies in comparison, according to an article by Time. The announcement led many to believe it was a hoax, but, as you’re no doubt aware, Gmail has become one of the most-used email providers.

It would be shocking if the same turned out to be true for Virgin America. It seems that would be an insane boost for BKG. I doubt the plane would sport Dolly Parton’s famous song title “Jolene,” but the red-backed planes flying in to our region would certainly spark celebrity levels of excitement.

Great song, by the way

Great song, by the way

Time will tell, but what a surprise that would be.

What do you think? Did the prank go too far? Vote on SBJ.net’s weekly poll question to let us know.

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