Airport’s Earle looking to the skies after recession

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Changes seems to be the only constant in the airline industry, and Mark Earle, director of the Colorado Springs Airport, has seen his share of it.

Currently, the airport is dealing with fewer passengers and fewer flights. Earle said the airport has suffered during the recession, which has hit smaller airports particularly hard.

What new programs do you have in place to increase enplanements?

Air service development is a top priority at COS. We work closely with the airlines that serve our community, and others that are evaluating the market for future service, to ensure that they have the latest information on our region and its economy.

This is a continual process that involves staying in close contact with the airline decision makers via phone and email, and meeting face-to-face at least twice each year. At these meetings, the airlines share information about changes in their business plans, and we help them identify where opportunities in our market align with their goals. We also keep them up-to-date on our incentive program, which the airlines acknowledge as one the most aggressive in the nation. The program, which is fully funded out of airport revenues, is intended to help airlines offset some of the start-up costs and uncertainty that comes with new service.

How has the airline industry changed since you started working at the airport?

Change has been the norm for U.S. airlines since 1978 when Congress deregulated the industry. Since then, the airlines have operated in a fiercely competitive environment that yields razor thin margins that make the industry vulnerable to even the slightest downturn in the economy. In a three year stretch beginning in 2007, the airlines suffered two major blows — an oil industry crisis that has more than tripled the cost of jet fuel, and the deepest economic recession in our nation’s history. The combined effect of these two factors has generated more change in the airline industry than we have seen at any point since deregulation.

What are some of the challenges you face as director of the Colorado Springs airport?

The recession has affected every aspect of what we do at the airport, but the most significant impact has been on the airlines. It has changed the way they operate, and not in a good way for smaller airports like COS. The most significant change was a drastic reduction in seat capacity nationwide, with small and medium sized airports taking the biggest hit. From the airline perspective, the capacity reduction has given the industry increased pricing power. This allowed them to increase ticket prices and charge additional fees for checked baggage on other services, and post industry-wide profits for the first time in decades. For small and medium sized airports, though, the capacity reductions mean fewer flights on smaller planes at higher prices. Our challenge on the business side is to “right size” the airport enterprise to fit a reduced revenue stream, without having a negative impact on customer service. When it comes to air service, we have to work as hard as we can to differentiate ourselves from other airports, and aggressively compete for the capacity that’s out there.

Does sharing the airfield with Peterson Air Force Base present any unusual challenges?

The airport owns and operates the airfield and makes it available to the flying units at Peterson AFB. While there are some unique aspects to military operations, civil and military aviation have always been closely linked through a common system of air traffic control and airport management standards and practices. The aviation professionals on both the civil and military side of our airfield understand each other and work well together as a team. The airfield, however, is only one aspect of the relationship between the base and the Airport. COS owns the land upon which the base is located, and leases it to the Department of Defense in exchange for services provided by base personnel in support of Airport operations. Due to the complexity of both organizations, the relationship between Peterson Air Force Base and the Airport requires a high level of effort and close cooperation from both sides. The benefits of the relationship, to the Department of Defense, the Airport and the community at large, make the effort well worthwhile.

Are there any plans to grow the airport — add flights or expand its capacity?

The airfield and terminal facilities at the Colorado Springs Airport have sufficient capacity to handle projected growth over the next 20-25 years. Our immediate challenge is to convince the airlines to provide more service in the form of additional non-stops and improved connections through the major hubs. While the past three years have been a challenge, we are beginning to see encouraging signs from the airlines that they are looking at our market in a new light. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re committed to doing everything we can to strengthen our relationship with the airlines and bring new service into the Colorado Springs market.