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OPINION: Commercial Air Service To Lake Of The Ozarks Would Be A Game-Changer

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Jet Taking Off At Sunset

Recently, I penned an OpEd suggesting five bold new initiatives to stimulate Lake area economic growth and take the Lake to next level and make it a “Worldwide Destination”. Here's the first: scheduled commercial air service.

I chose “Scheduled Commercial Air Service” as the first bold initiative because several of the subsequent initiatives are dependent, to varying degrees, on this obvious transportation system enhancement. For review, the Lake is extremely remote and isolated by tourism standards. Stated differently, it is a difficult place to reach. Although located very close to the US Mean Population Center, the Lake area is not currently served by scheduled commercial airline service. Moreover, there is no public transportation available. Therefore, the vast majority of visitors to Lake of the Ozarks arrive by automobile. Tourism experts generally define acceptable driving distance for a “getaway” tourist location to be 250 miles or less. This puts Lake of the Ozarks out of normal driving distance for nearly the entire US population. About two-thirds of the US Population (200 million) live within 100 miles of a coast or boarder. Moreover, 50% of the US population live in just nine states, and only one (Illinois) borders Missouri. Given that the Illinois population is heavily skewed toward the Chicagoland North, almost none of that state’s population is within normal driving distance. Missouri and its eight border states have a combined population of approximately 45 million (just under 20% of the US total). However, that encompasses a huge geographical area and locations at the furthest reaches are as much as a 13-hour drive. Even sections of Missouri’s own borders are as much as a seven-hour drive. Utilizing our theoretical “250 mile ring” around the Lake (which includes the St. Louis and Kansas City Metro areas), we have a population of perhaps six million, or less than two percent of the US Population. That is almost nobody.

A review of merchant sales and credit card data reveals more than half of the Lake’s visitors are from the St. Louis and Kansas City Metro Areas. Moreover, an additional 40% are from one of the other MO metro areas or from the previously mentioned border states. Less than 10% of the Lake’s visitors are from outside those areas – primarily because of the absence of scheduled airline service.

Some might say that some nearby cities have commercial air service - which is true. The nearest scheduled commercial airline service is Columbia (COU) – about an hour drive. But that service is quite limited serving the United and American hubs of Chicago and Dallas. So any flight to a non-hub destination such as Columbia requires at least one connection, and in many cases two and sometimes three. Springfield (SGF), an hour and a half drive away in the opposite direction is a similar story. A theoretical trip from Philadelphia (PHL) to Lake of the Ozarks by air has a trip time of at least six hours and only one connection but in most cases 12-13 hours and two connections not counting the final hour drive from Columbia or hour and a half trip from Springfield. I generously used PHL as an example because it is an American hub. Most other destinations would take far longer and almost always require two connections. But wait, you can fly into St. Louis (STL) or Kansas City (MCI) and drive the rest of the route. It is true there are many flights, some even direct between PHL and both STL and MCI. The few direct flights have durations of two and a half to three hours; in either case, you will most likely spend more time in a car than on an airplane. The connecting flights are worse with the travel time including two or more flights and additional waiting time in the airport between connections. Although many Midwesterners are accustomed to driving long distances, I assure you the majority of the US population is not. The bottom line is that air travel to Lake of the Ozarks (in its current form) is not very feasible for most.

The Lake area does have several quality general aviation (GA) airports that make the Lake convenient to reach by air for those with private or corporate aircraft. The largest and most suitable GA airport for commercial service is the Lee C. Fine (AIZ) airport in Kaiser. Located within the boundaries of the state park, it was originally conceived in the late 1960s by then Governor Warren Hearnes with the primary purpose of hosting the National Governor’s Conference. Hearnes wanted to show off to the other governors what he believed to be the swankiest Missouri tourist destination. The City of Osage Beach now owns Lee C. Fine Airport along with the Grand Glaize Airport (K15). Lee C. Fine Airport would require some infrastructure improvements to handle scheduled commercial travel such as the building of a modern commercial terminal to handle passengers, baggage and provide for adequate security, etc. That said, the runways, ramps and approaches in their current form are adequate for at least the smallest commuter aircraft. For medium sized aircraft such as a Boeing 737, the surfaces would have to be strengthened and a full instrument landing system (ILS) installed to allow flights to land in the most challenging weather conditions - currently there is a only Localizer (LOC) approach which has limited functionality when it comes to landing with severely reduced visibility. 

Suppose there were four scheduled commercial flights per day from AIZ to four different hubs (perhaps STL / MCI / Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) / Chicago O’Hare (ORD)). An obvious aircraft would be a Bombardier Q400 Turbo Prop with the capacity of 50 to 90 passengers. This aircraft is within the weight limits of AIZ in its current form as are several other aircraft models of similar capacity. Over the course of a year, this small number of flights has the potential to bring as many as 100,000 new visitors to the Lake area. That might not sound like many, but it is a start with just four flights per day. Most of these visitors would be from far away markets and truly bring in new economic growth.

Of course, the conventional wisdom is air service between Kansas City and St. Louis is impractical because they are too close. By the time you get to the airport, park and transit security, board, takeoff, cruise, land and deplane – it is faster to drive. This is correct – but only if your trip originates in one of those cities. The connections at MCI and STL would not typically be residents of those domains, but visitors from Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, perhaps even London, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere. Remember – new thinking – new visitors.

So how do we accomplish this? 

In nearly every case, establishing a new scheduled commercial airline market requires some form of initial public investment and subsidy. Ideally, the various Lake communities and/or counties would form a political entity or airport authority and all share proportionally in these initial costs – after all, they will all share later in the benefits. And the long-term benefits can be enormous. A suitable commercial terminal should be built immediately and concurrently with negotiations of potential scheduled air carriers. A goal of four flights per day within the first year. Longer term, a redevelopment plan for AIZ should be formulated to increase the utility of the facility – stronger, maybe even longer runways and a full instrument approach (ILS).

This idea is far from unprecedented, even in our own backyard. Just over a decade ago, the Missouri resort town of Branson undertook a bold new initiative and built the Branson Airport (BBG) – the first new “from scratch – non-replacement” airport constructed in the US in more than four decades. The $155 million project was completed with a mixture of private capital and public funding. The airport’s single 7,140 foot long runway is only about 10% longer than AIZ, but has a much greater weight capacity – adequate for jets up to the size of a Boeing 737. The modern passenger terminal was designed to accommodate up to one million passengers annually. Currently Frontier Airlines provides scheduled service to the facility as has Southwest and several other airlines at various times. A similar project at the Lake could be completed much more quickly and at a fraction of the cost given the infrastructure already in existence at Lee C. Fine (thanks to Governor Hearnes).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that we currently operate several GA aircraft out of the Lake area’s general aviation airports, primarily Grand Glaize. Living at the Lake is a dream come true if you have your own wings. In our twin engine Beechcraft, we can depart K15, barely two miles from our home and be in Orlando in just over four hours - non-stop. One could not drive to STL or MCI and even be pushed back aboard a Boeing 737 in that amount of time. New York is barely 5 hours away, and Chicago little more than an hour and half. When we lived on the West Coast, every other weekend or so we would make the trip to our vacation home here at the Lake. It took less than a third of the time of a commercial flight with the associated land commuting. You get the picture. Indeed, all the area GA airports have brisk private and corporate air travel all year long – from tiny Pipers and Cessnas to Gulfstream Jets – and everything in between. The hangar occupancy rate at both the Osage Beach city owned airports is either at, or very nearly, 100%. The Lake is already easily accessible via private and corporate aircraft, but this obviously represents a miniscule percentage of the population with such means. This bold new initiative will make commercial air travel to the Lake feasible for the masses.