Recovery renews hopes of expanded air service at COS

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Denver’s airport added more routes and flights this year, gaining new service to New York and other prime destinations. Colorado Springs, on the other hand, got just one new daily flight, to suburban Washington, D.C.

A lot of locals wonder what’s up with that?

Executives at a number of area companies, as well as officials at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, say the market needs and can handle more airlines and expanded routes. The airport is now served by six airlines, led by United Airlines.

As the recovery takes hold, there may be reason to hope that existing service will be expanded and that even more airlines will come.

In response to the recession, airlines serving the local market cut back so much that many of their flights are taking off at 90-percent capacity or more. While that sounds good, it’s not ideal, especially when there’s bad weather, because having too few planes at their disposal can mean further delays in getting passengers to their destinations.

With a return to better times, airlines are expected to put more of their planes in the air.

Change can’t come soon enough for Chris Blees, CEO of BiggsKofford, a Colorado Springs accounting firm.

Blees flies about 20 times per year. He lives less than 15 minutes from the airport, and would prefer to fly out of the Springs but usually doesn’t.

“I refuse to fly out of Colorado Springs if I have to connect in Denver,” Blees said.

The same can be said about the employees of Intelligent Software Solutions Corp.

The company employs 250 people locally — about 100 of whom travel on a regular basis, making 700 to 800 trips per year.

Many of them drive to Denver, however, to get direct flights.

Intelligent’s president, Jay Jesse, said the local airport is “nice and convenient,” but “eight out of 10 times” he drives to Denver to avoid a connecting flight.

“It’s hard to cry foul about (the lack of air service),” he said. “They don’t have enough people flying out.”

Actually, they used to.

The addition of Western Pacific Airlines in the 1990s was a huge boost to the local economy.

“Our hotels were at 75-percent occupancy, and hotel development followed with 4,000 new hotel rooms,” said Terry Sullivan, CEO of Experience Colorado Springs, the convention and visitors bureau.

The number of people boarding at the airport was above 2 million annually, before steadily declining to below 1 million by 2008, where it has stayed ever since.

The latest figures aren’t much better: Passenger traffic at the airport in the first three months of the year is down 4.6 percent from the same period a year ago to 188,271 according to preliminary data.

Several factors have contributed to the trend.

DIA opened in 1995, drawing away local passenger traffic and WestPac, which moved to Denver in 1997.

Travel declined nationally after 9/11 and airlines cut service 20 percent at secondary airports such as Colorado Springs’.

Smaller regional jets were widely put into use after 2001, furthering reducing the airport’s load and capacity. Regional jets hold about 50 passengers compared to 120 to 135 passengers in larger jets such as 737s.

“Reality is that Colorado Springs is just one pea in a pot,” Sullivan said. “It’s difficult for us to be singled out over larger cities that can offer more traffic and demand.”

The airport today is in discussions with several airlines in hopes of bringing new service to the Springs.

Southwest Airlines, one of the fastest growing in the nation, isn’t one of them — at least for now.

“Never say never,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Mainz. “We always have our eyes open and are open to exploring new opportunities.”

There are two bright spots for the local airport: the addition of a nonstop flight to Dulles International Airport, which SkyWest Airlines will operate, beginning June 9, and upgrades in Frontier Airlines’ local service.

Frontier has switched four of its six existing daily flights from turboprops to jet service. The other two flights will go to jet service by September, said spokeswoman Lindsey Purves.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

In the meanwhile, the airline industry is showing signs of readiness to expand, though the “competition (between cities) will be fierce,” said Mark Earle, director of aviation for the Colorado Springs Airport.

“Our approach is to stay engaged with all the airlines — the ones here and the ones that have a potential to come here,” Earle said.

The airport has had success on that score in the past.

Before the fuel crisis of 2007, the airport brought in three new airlines in one year — Midwest, Express Jet and Frontier. It then lost the first two during the recession.

Earle said the airport’s “aggressive” incentive program should help.

It includes two to three years of 100-percent landing rebates to the airlines and a larger portion of revenue-sharing during that period. Landing rebates are reimbursements of the fee airports charge airlines to use their runways. Under revenue-sharing deals, airports share the revenue from parking and other concessions in their terminals with airlines.

Sometimes, though, the very people who complain about a lack of flights are contributing to the problem.

“Every time someone drives to DIA,” Sullivan said, “it hurts our chances of bringing in more service.”

The hospitality industry would, of course, welcome more airlines.

David C. Fine, director of sales and marketing at The Broadmoor, said he is “thrilled” with the upcoming nonstop flight to Dulles.

“That’s a real home run — now we have direct access to buyers and decision-makers in associations that are headquartered in Alexandria and Virginia or the D.C. area,” Fine said. “It’s a critically important market to us.”