The airport, like so many regional airports across the country, is caught in a swirl of factors including consolidating airlines, a sluggish economy and rising fuel prices.
Every year for the past decade fewer people have boarded airplanes from Colorado Springs Airport. In 2002, there were 1.06 million passengers boarding. This year, airport officials project just 690,204 passengers.
In its most recent blow, Frontier Airlines pulled out of the Springs, where it had 19 percent of the market and an average of five flights a day. Following that news, City officials announced that Colorado Springs airport aviation director Mark Earle was stepping down and they would search for a new director.
Mayor Steve Bach has issued a call for an airport marketing expert — one who has studied strategies on marketing a regional airport in the shadow of an international airport, like Denver, which reported a 7 percent increase in operating revenue and 2 percent increase in enplanements in the third quarter of 2012, compared with the third quarter of 2011.
Bach’s expectation, according to the request for proposal, is for a marketing consultant to define the regional market, assess the overall effectiveness of the existing marketing efforts, develop a retention plan, create a strategy to restore service to previously served markets and write a plan to pursue service opportunities.
But there may be no going back, said Mike Boyd, chairman of The Boyd Group International, an Evergreen, Colo.-based consulting firm. The decline in air service is a reflection of changes at the airlines, including mergers and consolidation and no marketing expert can work their magic on that.
This year, there will be 2 percent fewer seats available on airplanes and a projected 200 fewer airlines by the end of the year, thanks to mergers and consolidation, he said.
“There aren’t many airlines left,” Boyd said. “We see this across the country. You can’t get what isn’t there.”
But that is not the kind of news politicians want to hear, Boyd said. He was asked by several firms to partner on the Colorado Springs RFP but turned them down saying no one can achieve what is in the RFP.
“I can understand the frustration,” Boyd said. “You’re thinking, ‘we’re Colorado Springs. We’re vibrant.’ But you are not as big as Denver and your population growth is north of you in Castle Rock.”
Regional airports, especially those very near large international airports, have a particularly difficult time selling themselves. The Federal Aviation Administration projects over the next 20 years that large airports will continue to grow faster than their smaller counterparts. The report also said that smaller, regional jets would be retired — about 1,000 regional 50-seat jets by 2017.
Colorado Springs is cursed with an international airport — one with three airline hubs slashing prices in the throes of competition — one hour away, Boyd said. Instead of going after airlines, the Colorado Springs Airport ought to focus on the existing routes and see where they can make schedule changes that would connect their flyers to more destinations.
“Mark Earle was one of the best. Losing him was not a positive thing for Colorado Springs,” Boyd said. “There is this expectation that if we do enough research and study we will get the airlines.”
In 2010, the Colorado Springs Airport had seven major and national airlines and seven regional and commuter airlines. In 2011, it had six majors and four regional airlines. In February, Frontier pulled out.
“We all had high hopes with Frontier when they announced they would be starting new flights from Colorado Springs,” said Jan Martin, Colorado Springs city councilor. “It was a real blow when Frontier pulled out.”
Assistant Aviation Director Dan Gallagher has assumed the role of director while the City conducts a national search for a new director.
Gallagher, a long-time aviation industry employee, said there are three legs to the airport marketing stool. First there is the math. He outlined a cost recovery model that includes historical loads and retention factors. The airport needs to drive down its costs to give airlines an incentive to add service, he said. For example, landing fees went from $2.10 per aircraft in 2010 to $2.52 in 2011. And per-passenger fees went from $6.80 in 2010 to $8.85 in 2011. The increase in fees helped pump up total operating revenue by $1.1 million in 2011. But Gallagher sees an advantage of lowering fees as an incentive to attract airlines.
The second leg is the marketing analysis, which would show there is demand to and from the Springs, he said.
“Just because Frontier is not here doesn’t mean passengers just stop flying,” he said.
The last leg, and the one over which the airport may have the most control, is marketing the airport to the locals; highlighting the airport’s assets, including low parking fees, shorter lines and food offerings. Gallagher said there also ought to be incentives to fly in and out of the Springs, which might include hotel packages or airline mileage points. Whatever the airport’s marketing program, Gallagher said, it has to be a total approach and not just a few gimmicks.
“We’ve got to do a better job of telling people about our programs,” Gallagher said.
Martin agrees. She is often disappointed when business travelers tell her they drove to Denver to catch a flight.
“I think the idea of doing a real marketing campaign locally would be a good idea to encourage more people to fly out of Colorado Springs,” Martin said.
Martin recalls a conversation with an airline executive a few years back. She wanted to know what it would take to get them to fly in and out of the Springs.
“He said, ‘we need to see that your business community supports the airport,’ ” she said.
Now, 45 percent of Springs flyers drive to Denver International Airport; 82 percent of Monument flyers drive to DIA; and 53 percent of Pueblo flyers drive past Colorado Springs to Denver, according to the details in the RFP.
The RFP calls for a marketing strategy that includes partnering with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Joe Raso, Business Alliance CEO, said he’s already reached out to airport directors across the country to study best practices. The airport is part of the business community’s infrastructure and he’s hearing concern through a series of surveys about the lack of service at the airport.
“One of the biggest concerns they have is with air service in the region,” Raso said. “The level of satisfaction was below what we want to see.”
Amy Long, CVB vice president marketing and partnerships, is convinced that the missing market is right in Colorado Springs’ backyard. The CVB advertises the airport in its visitors guide and mentions it, links and tweets it in every conversation with potential visitors. But Long believes the locals ought to give the Colorado Springs Airport a try.
“Don’t assume that Denver is your only choice,” she said. “Give this airport a chance, it will deliver.”
It’s possible that if more locals use the Colorado Springs Airport more airlines will be interested in expanding service, Martin said.
“It’s a dilemma — like the chicken and the egg — do you get more flights to attract people or do you get more people to bring in more flights?”