It should have been a time of celebration at the Colorado Springs Airport.
Crews were wrapping up the finishing touches on a $236,000 visual display that leaves no doubt in travelers’ minds that Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Air Force Academy and wonders of nature.
But just as a giant Olympic-style gold medallion was suspended over the escalators, airport officials were getting word from Frontier Airlines that it was ending its five-year presence here. The airline, which had cut its service from the Springs to Denver effective March 2, also will end its remaining nonstop flights, including those to Phoenix and Los Angeles, that it not so long ago touted with great fanfare.
It’s a tough loss, said Mark Earle, Colorado Springs Airport aviation director. Frontier flights represented about 19 percent of the airport’s traffic.
But Earle wasted no time. He was on the phone the same day with other airlines, letting them know the kind of capacity and routes now available. He’s encouraged, he said. The airlines aren’t giving him the cold shoulder.
“Service comes and goes from all carriers,” Earle said. “You look at history and you gain service, and then the economy changes or the airline changes, and you react to it.”
Frontier has a hub in Denver and since 2008 had been maintaining a healthy schedule of flights from Colorado Springs to Denver and back to get passengers to connecting flights.
Last May, Frontier officials came here to announce new nonstop service from Colorado Springs to Orlando, Fla., and San Diego, and the airline’s senior vice president Daniel Shurz said more were in the works.
It was all part of Frontier Airlines’ new business model in which the company dubbed Colorado Springs a “focus city” with nonstop flights, using larger aircraft and offering lower ticket prices. It was good news for Colorado Springs, which like small cities across the country lost flights in recent years.
Under the focus city model, Frontier was flying its 138-seat Airbus A319 out of Colorado Springs to Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix and it lowered ticket prices so the airline could fill the plane. Earlier indications were that the nonstop flights were luring strong bookings. Shurz reported that flights were filling up and people were booking the direct flights on Frontier’s website, one of the company’s goals.
But then Frontier was told by its holding company, Republic Airways, that it no longer could fly the smaller Embraer aircraft between Colorado Springs and Denver, Earle said. Those planes were needed elsewhere.
“(Frontier) didn’t have a choice — they had to pull down the connecting service to Denver,” he said.
Frontier spokeswoman Kate O’Malley said the airline is not abandoning its focus city business model. It will be putting its efforts in Trenton, N.J., she said, adding, “For Colorado Springs we realized that the drive between Colorado Springs and Denver — people are more likely to drive to Denver where they have more options and more frequency.”
Earle said there has been a structural shift in how the airlines do business. They used to blanket the field, trying to put service everywhere they could or choose a location just because their competition was there, Earle said. Airlines also would fly aircraft at 60 percent full.
But after the fuel crisis of 2008 and then the recession on its heels, airlines scaled back service. And they are less patient when it comes to seeing returns.
Small and medium-sized airports have been hit the hardest. Medium airports lost 18 percent capacity and smaller airports lost 10 to 15 percent capacity. Colorado Springs had fared better than other small airports, losing about 12 percent capacity since 2009. Now, with Frontier pulling out, Colorado Springs Airport is in the middle of the pack when it comes to losses, Earle said.
“We will have to see how our initial efforts to attract new capacity works out,” he said. “We are encouraged that the airlines are taking our calls. They are listening to our proposals.”
Meanwhile, the airport is nearing completion on a $22.8 million terminal improvement program to help the airport become more customer-friendly and make a statement about Colorado Springs and its offerings to the 2 million passengers coming and going each year through the airport.
The terminal project included installation of a fully automated baggage screening system, expansion of the security checkpoint, a new premium security line, two new restaurants and updated interior signs and video displays.
The icing on the improvement cake, a project dubbed “The Gateway,” includes photos, banners and iconic symbols that represent Colorado Springs as a way to brand the city.
Along the corridors are photos and displays of the U.S. Air Force Academy and photos that depict the Pikes Peak region’s outdoor activities.
“It’s just fabulous,” said Pat Boone, chairwoman of the Colorado Springs Airport Advisory Commission. “We are fortunate to have the Air Force Academy here, which is known worldwide; the Olympic Committee, also known worldwide . . . the things [the airport] highlighted are known worldwide. And to think it’s all right here in Colorado Springs.”
The USOC doesn’t allow its rings to hang just anywhere. But, since 2010, when CEO Scott Blackmun took the helm, the USOC has made more of an effort to reach out, embrace and be part of the Colorado Springs community, said Mark Jones, USOC spokesman.
“One of the things we’ve been focused on is determining how the USOC and Olympic family are playing the appropriate role in the community, and telling the story of Colorado Springs,” Jones said.
Airport officials began working with USOC officials in 2011 to design a graphic arts display that includes a wavy banner that says, “Where U.S. Olympic dreams take flight.”
That idea now has come to fruition.
“The airport serves as the first impression for thousands of visitors, giving them a breathtaking view of Pikes Peak and a taste of Colorado hospitality,” Earle said.