Regional airline to start flights to Branson

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Feb. 24--Wabash Valley residents will soon be able to fly nonstop aboard a regional jet to Branson, Mo., with connecting service to Houston or Austin, Texas, on Branson AirExpress, departing three days a week from Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field.

The new service, operated by ExpressJet Airlines under the name Branson AirExpress, will start May 17, flying from Terre Haute each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Flights will likely depart about 12:30 p.m., said Ken Palmer, FBO (fixed base operator) manager for Branson JetCenter LLC.

Palmer and Terre Haute Airport Director Dennis Wiss on Tuesday announced the collaborative partnership to offer low-cost round-trip travel between Terre Haute and Branson Airport.

Cost is $39 one-way, an introductory fare, and if desired, passengers can continue to Houston or Austin, Texas, for $99 one-way, Palmer said. Price excludes federal taxes and fees, plus a $15 checked baggage fee for the first bag and $25 for a second checked bag per person.

A round-trip flight between Terre Haute and Branson is about $118 with the introductory rate and applicable fees, according to Branson AirExpress, while the rate between Terre Haute and Houston is about $282, and between Terre Haute and Austin is about $288.

Flight time to Branson, Mo., is about 1 hour, 12 minutes, Palmer said.

The seasonal flight service will continue through the first or second week of December, Palmer said. Tickets can be purchased now at 1-888-FLY- BKG1 (359-2541) or at BransonAirExpress.com.

The aircraft is a fuel-efficient Embraer ERJ-145 jet aircraft, which seats 50 passengers. The jet has two seats on one side and a single seat on the opposite side. The jets feature 100 channels of free XM Satellite Radio and cushioned leather seating, Palmer said.

"What is exciting is it is one-stop shopping. You can get your airfare, hotel and show tickets, and you can do it all from their Web site," Wiss said. "They will take care of your entire vacation package, business travel and even tour groups."

Palmer said Branson is known for its live music, with more than 50 live-performance theaters plus "three pristine lakes, 12 championship golf courses, an award-winning theme park and dozens of museums and attractions," he said.

Branson AirExpress plans to announce more partner airports in the next 45 days, with two or three more cities added to the network. Branson AirExpress will operate two jets, one based in Austin, Texas, the second in Houston, Palmer said.

"The way the routes are flown, you can go through Branson to Austin or Houston and have between a 45-minute layover to a 21/2 hour-layover depending on which direction you are going," Palmer said.

Other cities announced Tuesday in the flight network include Des Moines, Iowa, and Shreveport, La., but would require an overnight stay if connecting from Terre Haute. "For us, that is not considered a viable route," Palmer said.

Palmer said about 70 people a day on average travel to Branson, Mo., from the Terre Haute area, based on marketing figures.

"We think opening up air service is going to increase that number just by opening up a different option for people to use," Palmer said. "There are people who could drive to Branson, but are not drivers, and so they are going to want to fly. There is a portion of the people who do drive that are going to want to fly and of course there is a number that will want to go to Houston or Austin.

"As air service goes, this is definitely a low-cost option, which fits in with the low-cost destination," Palmer said. "Branson is known as a value destination for families to go to where you can afford a week of entertainment and travel with an entire family, and this fits right in with that model.

"The introductory rates will probably exist all along, but the number of seats that are at these rates may decrease over time as we see more demand, but this will remain low-cost air service," Palmer said.

Branson Airport is the first privately developed and operated commercial service airport in the U.S., Palmer said. That nearly year-old airport is also serviced by AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said the city will provide fire protection for the scheduled charter service. The city took over fire protection at the airport on an on-demand basis in 2008, the same year the Indiana Air National Guard stopped that service. "This is a great opportunity for the community and we will make it work," Bennett said.

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com

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