Fewer fliers, but is there a silver lining?

Filed under: News |

Passenger numbers are increasing at airports nationwide and in Denver, but the same can’t be said for Colorado Springs.
Enplanement trends at Colorado Springs Airport for 2007 are “disappointing,” according to the latest quarterly economic update of business conditions from Fred Crowley, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The report shows that although enplanements have increased by 23 percent nationwide and 37 percent at Denver International Airport since 2001, departing passenger numbers in Colorado Springs have fallen by 7.3 percent.
“The area’s loss of basic employment and loss of tourism market share suggest identifiable causes of the airport’s low enplanement levels,” Crowley wrote. “A definitive study is needed on how economic development and tourism affect the airport to enable better use of the airport.”
The report did note, however, that enplanements increased slightly during the most recent quarter, putting the airport on track to equal the 2006 level of slightly less than 1.02 million.
Despite the trend shown in Crowley’s report, Mark Earle, the airport’s aviation director, said that the Springs compares well to facilities serving comparable metropolitan areas.

Similar facilities

However, Eppley Field in Omaha, with more than 2 million enplanements, is twice as busy as Colorado Springs, and has shown steady growth since 2001.
Des Moines International Airport, with 978,907 enplanements, has a passenger volume virtually identical to that of Colorado Springs.
But, like Omaha, the airport has seen passenger volume grow rather than decline since 2001.
Albuquerque International Sunport, with more than 3 million annual enplanements, has seen passenger growth of 2 percent annually for 15 years.

Falling fares

During 2000, the average domestic fare for flights originating from Colorado Springs was $414.37, significantly lower than DIA’s average fare of $442.37.
But by the second quarter of 2004, the positions were reversed. At COS, the average fare had dropped to $370.50, but Denver’s had plummeted to $323.92.
Since then, prices at DIA have continued to fall, reaching $311.62 during the second quarter of this year, while Colorado Springs fares, at $378.89, are 25 percent higher.
Earle said that while those statistics are accurate, they don’t necessarily reflect badly upon Colorado Springs.
“After 9/11, the airlines dumped about 20 percent of their flights, most of them originating from smaller airports,” he said. “And as they began to add capacity in subsequent years, most of it was at the largest airports. Also, low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue moved into larger airports, bringing down fares.”
Earle said that because of DIA’s proximity, Colorado Springs will always operate under its shadow — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It means that we have easy access to international non-stops, and all the benefits of a major hub,” he said. “But it also means that we have to be very creative in searching for ways to drive more flights to and from Colorado Springs.”
The most significant of such drivers might be the Skywest and Frontier maintenance centers.
Earle said that these multimillion-dollar investments bind both airlines more securely to the Springs than would a transient commitment to fly a route. And the maintenance centers practically ensure there will be local service by both airlines, and others, like Midwest that contract to use the maintenance centers.

Economic incubator

Mike Boyd, the CEO of Golden-based Boyd Aviation Consultants, thinks that Colorado Springs is doing just fine.
“The airport’s done nothing wrong — in fact, they’ve done everything right,” he said. “If you just look at passenger numbers, at how many feet are wearing out the carpet on your walkways, you’re missing the point.”
Boyd said, the proximity to Denver is helping Colorado Springs.
“You’ve got good air service; you’re the number two portal to the Front Range, and you’ve got DIA,” he said. “But the real story of your airport is that it has taken a role in the community that has just been tremendous — the job creation (with the maintenance centers) is huge. It’s because of DIA that you’ve been able to get those centers.”
He said the airport should be judged by its impact on the broader economy.
“You know all those businesses out on Garden of the Gods Road, Intel and so forth? I fly over them, and there are weeds growing in the parking lots,” he said. “The airport is going to replace them — it’s going to be the economic underpinning of the region.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com