Airport hopes its rebound can start soon

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As this photo indicates, late-day business has been lacking at the Colorado Springs airport, but more flights should be coming.

As this photo indicates, late-day business has been lacking at the Colorado Springs airport, but more flights should be coming.

The Colorado Springs Airport is striving to be more customer-friendly, reduce costs and attract more passengers.

And all that work just might have paid off — at least in a small way.

The airport plans soon to announce flights to two additional cities from the Springs airport, flights that represent a return of service for the airlines providing them. With speculation surrounding possible renewed service to Phoenix and Orlando, city and airline officials were planning to make an announcement Thursday, after the Business Journal’s print deadline. (For further updates, go to csbj.com.)

The decision to add flights to the airport is the result of a big marketing push. Dan Gallagher, interim airport director, says he spent a few days in Atlanta early this month talking to airlines at JumpStart, an event he described as “speed dating for airlines.”

The event featured seven major airlines and gave Gallagher the chance to market the airport’s new approach to saving money and promoting Colorado Springs’ facility.

“We’re taking a pretty aggressive approach,” he says. “We’re courting new airlines, trying to add cities to the airlines already here.”

The response already has been positive, he said.

“We let them know the demographics,” he said. “About 85 percent of the market — from Pueblo and the Springs — goes to Denver. We have room to grow — there are people who aren’t choosing our market [now]. But there are plenty of good economic indicators to show that if the airlines are here, people will fly from here.”

For the airlines, it’s all about the math.

“There’s not a lot of loyalty with airlines,” he said. “It’s about the profit margin. Airplanes cost about $40 or $80 million. They cost about $6,000 an hour to run. They look at places where they can make a profit — even a 15-cent-a-mile profit will make a difference to them.”

So Gallagher said that the Springs airport plans to cut the cost per passenger by 25 percent, and to lower airline fees as well. But, he said, it’s not easy. The Springs finds itself in a typical Catch-22 — fewer passengers automatically equal higher costs because the airlines spread the cost of doing business to passengers.

Cutting those costs and increasing passengers is key to the airport’s marketing plan.

So city officials are working to make the airport more attractive to passengers. They’ve started a frequent flyer program for people who fly often from the airport, making it easier for them to get through security. They’ve also offered a deal: a day of free parking for people who spend money at the airport’s bars and restaurants.

Bach’s vision

Mayor Steve Bach also plans a monthly visit, something he’s already done once, greeting passengers who leave from the airport in the early morning hours for business travel.

Is it all enough? Bach says he has bigger plans for the airport, once the city chooses a marketing firm to help create a brand for a regional airport.

“Why can’t we be the entryway to the ski resorts?” Bach asked. “Why should people go to Denver and then spend five, six hours on Interstate 70? It’s getting more and more congested. We could be the entryway, and fly people to regional airports for those resorts.”

Bach also suggested ways to curb the frustration from canceled flights.

“I think if we cancel a flight here, we ought to provide — at our cost — some way to get to the Denver airport,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t do that. It would end some of the concern of flying from the Springs. Offer a limo or something, some way to make the connecting flight.”

Bach has his favorite airports too — smaller, regional airports such as in Madison, Wis., in the shadow of big-city international airports that are still doing well.

“We ought to examine those best practices,” he said. “See what they’re doing right in Madison. They’re close to Milwaukee, and they’re still doing great.”

He’s right. Madison’s airport, known as Dane County Regional Airport, was named one of the world’s top 20 airports by Passenger Terminal World, a trade publication. Owned by Dane County, the airport was singled out for its service and speed through the terminals, and for its environmentally friendly building program.

The small regional airport, with about 1.5 million passengers a year, had heady company for the award: Heathrow Airport in London, Denmark’s Copenhagen Airport, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., were among the winners.

And while the Springs airport has seen steady declines in the past decade, Madison’s airport has grown through the years.

Brent McHenry, spokesman for the Madison airport, credits the marketing campaign for the continued passenger support of the airport.

“The [Dane County airport] is a multi-faceted brand awareness campaign to encourage fliers to fly locally,” he said in an email. “The program includes online, print, web, social media, radio and billboard elements.”

One of the interesting online tools combats perceived lower costs at the Milwaukee and Chicago airports. A simple calculator, it allows visitors to put in the price of the Milwaukee flight, how far they’ll have to drive and how much they’ll pay for parking.

“If you ever wonder if it is worth flying from Milwaukee or Chicago for ‘lower’ fares, check this Flight Cost Calculator to see if you are actually saving money,” the website says.

The airport’s success shows it isn’t always about the pricing, McHenry says.

“Although price is always a consideration, passengers use [Madison] because of many factors, including convenience, proximity, nonstop destinations, flight frequency and flights with two-class service,” he said.

But the incentives that the Springs airport has started offering can’t be used at Madison under county ordinance, so that airport must be successful without them, he said.

Madison offers 13 nonstop destinations, hitting most of the major cities in the middle of the country and many on the East Coast.

But McHenry acknowledges that competition is fierce for airlines. The Dane County airport minimizes any rate increases and, whenever possible, won’t raise fees for airlines.

“The airport maintains regular communications with current and future airlines regarding opportunities for expansion and enhancements of current service,” he said, noting it was part of Madison’s marketing strategy.

In many ways, the two airports are similar. They have a similar number of passengers, a similar number of direct flights and a similar number of airlines serving the airport.

But while Madison’s airport is gaining international attention, the Colorado Springs airport has seen better days.

Down to four airlines

At its height, Colorado Springs had 5 million passengers going through its terminal. That was 1996, when now-defunct Western Pacific Airlines had a hub in the Springs. Two years later, WestPac moved to Denver, then shut down, and the number of passengers has steadily declined every year since.

Today, Colorado Springs has four airlines going to 13 nonstop destinations, most of them hub cities. And despite the positive news, the decline continues. As of March, airport travel was down 14.4 percent from the previous March, and down 5.9 percent year-to-date.

Colorado Springs is reeling from several blows. Most recent was the departure early this year of Frontier Airlines, which only a few months before had declared Colorado Springs as a “focus” airport. Now, the local passenger numbers are expected to drop to 690,204 this year.

It’s also seen a major drop in military departures and arrivals, thanks to fewer flights as wars wind down and the Air Force curtails travel because of sequestration.

This March, the military has only had 397 flights, 90.7 percent lower than the 4,249 flights in March 2012. So far this year, it’s had 3,759 flights, a 59.7 percent drop from year-to-date 2012, when the military flew 9,330 flights from the airport.

Both scheduled carriers and chartered flights are down around 5 percent as well.

Some aviation experts claim that regional airports can’t compete with larger, international airports in neighboring cities. But some of them, like Madison, are determined to capture their share of the market, despite the proximity to larger cities.

Bach believes that the Springs airport can recover and thrive.

“I believe if we market the airport, we can make it be more successful,” he said. “We have to try.”

7 Responses to Airport hopes its rebound can start soon

  1. Cutting costs for the airlines they are courting?? What about the fliers that don’t want to pay up to 200$ more just for flying out of and into the Springs, only to have a 2 hour layover in Denver. Until it is more economical to fly out of the springs, DIA will always get my money

    Christi
    July 1, 2013 at 9:04 am

  2. I would love to be able to fly out of the Colorado Springs Airport….I really wish someone would bring back nonstop flights to San Diego. I know a lot of people who live here travel there….instead I am forced to drive up to DIA for that service.

    Keri
    July 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm

  3. During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, what percentage of the airport’s traffic was due to troop movements and military leaves taken prior to those movements?

    Winston
    July 2, 2013 at 6:21 am

  4. The Springs airport will always struggle. Many regional airports are government subsidized to ensure service continues. With DEN in the midst, unless CS gov’t is willing to subsidize, which I DON”T favor, but it’s a reality if we wanted expanded service. I travel from the North end of CS and (until recent I25 expansion began) enjoyed a quick 35 minute drive to the CS Airport. I know if I have a 0600 or 1300 flight, I can leave my house at 100 minutes prior to departure and easily make my flight.

    FINALLY having a premier lane (after 10 years of asking for it) is a step in the right direction. However, I would really like to see TSA PreCheck get installed here….

    My concern is how far Bach is willing to shaft the citizens of COS to get these additional airlines to add flights and new airlines to bring service to COS. The challenge is the numbers. During summer months, many vacation destinations fill up planes. However, to sustain these airlines there has to be YEAR ROUND demand. Recent federal government sequestration has certainly curtailed much of the federal and contractor travel, but it does continue.

    ISSUE for BACH – The consistent United AM flight cancellations is serious and has become exponentially more of a headache in recent months. UA Express is now the ONLY feeder to DEN. When a flight delays or cancels the ripple effect is huge throughout the day. I know American occasionally cancels a flight, but United, nearly everyday has at least one cancellation. When fliers know there is a backup plan to cancelled flights, many will come back to COS. But knowing there is NO other alternative than United has forced many premium business paying passengers to begin going to DEN. I have several times had to reconsider using COS as my home airport b/c of United’s issues. Levy a fine schedule against the airlines that cancel and leave passengers stranded without options.

    There are smart people in Colorado Springs that could get together and work to build an executable plan to get COS back on the travel maps. Paying a marketing firm (guessing out of town and maybe has airport experience) is not a wise use of money in my opinion.

    Back to security….

    Ken G
    July 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm

  5. I am a native to Colorado Springs and would love to see COS have more success. I was glad to see that COS now offers a separate security line for frequent flyers. This is a step in the right direction, however, if COS would like to improve and see positive revenue growth in 2014 they will need to follow through on a few more steps:
    1. Delays/ Cancellations: Ensure that airlines minimize delays and cancellations from the COS airport, or as Mayor Bach mentioned, have a backup plan. A cancelation/delay at COS can change a 4 hour travel day into a 8 hour travel day and dramatically impact the traveler’s opinion of the COS airport. I flew on over 70 airplanes in the last 12 months and delays/cancellations at COS is my number one concern.
    2. Marketing: let the passengers know how COS is changing to better address the needs of their customers. Customers will respond positively to an organization that has their best interest at hand.
    3. What do the travelers think? Have a kiosk at the COS airport offering a $5 coupon to travelers above age 18 if they will fill out a 5 question survey. The $5 coupon can be redeemed in any store on COS property. Let the COS airline travelers contribute to the solution and help COS build a strong and efficient airport.
    4. Business Relationships: Hire a few qualified individuals to reach out and build strong relationships with the national airlines. These relationships, if developed correctly and strategically, should allow COS and the national airlines to discuss the following topics before it is too late:
    a. Airline cost of doing business at COS
    b. National airlines that are quietly seeking new hubs/access in cities like COS
    I think it is great that COS is planning to cut the cost per passenger by 25%, offering more direct flights to cities and trying to reduce the cost of plane tickets. This is a welcome approach and with the few recommendations listed above I believe the COS airport will overcome the hurdles it faces in 2013.

    Tim Cruz
    719.648.0085

    Tim Cruz
    July 3, 2013 at 1:28 pm

  6. The entire article without mention of 900 pound gorilla in the room – SOUTHWEST AIRLINES. The history is replete with examples of when SWA came in – the competitiveness of the fares at the airport it entered have improved substantially. Mayor Bach and airport director should be camping out in their Dallas headquarters asking them: “What will it take?” Everyone has a price and we must bring SWA to COS no matter what it costs because there really is no other way out of current trouble at COS.

    I organize events for Olympic sport in town and we have actually been bringing some of our officials from east coast to Denver and paying for their rental car and it was still cheaper and shorter travel time than flying them into COS. With over 40 governing bodies for USOC members, I believe there are numerous events that take place year round and all must have experienced difficulty getting participants to the events.

    The subsidy must be considered at least at the outset to allow the re-establishment of COS as choice travel. We have population in excess of million people who could be accessing COS instead of driving. Aided by the construction delays on I-25 we can re-capture this air traffic but time is of the essence.

    As a former commuter traveler, I believe reliance on United & Alaska’s junior partner, SkyWest, as primarily the sole airline out is HUGE MISTAKE and everything possible should be done to rectify it.

    Janna Blanter
    July 4, 2013 at 7:39 am

  7. SWA coming to COS or back to COS – I think it’s a pipe dream.

    IF, and I say IF COS can get back on the map as an important regional airport, there might be a future with SWA. Flying full size 737′s into COS with 1/2 passenger loads is not profitable and the airlines work for profits or for profits with the right subsidies. How many $M’s was spent on Proby parkway/flyover for a ‘direct’ route to the airport – (Rivera’s promise to SWA in his attempt to lure) that is incorrectly aligned…as most of regular airport commuters drive I25 south to S. Academy and swing north to access the parkway.

    The XX$M that was spent putting USOC all over the atrium would have been better spent on identifying ways to lure other regional feeder airlines into COS.

    I will agree that relying in SkyWest and UA Express as the only feeder to Denver (and a few directs) is very dangerous. I have noticed Republic has repainted their Q400′s with UA logo and paint. However, these prop planes have as many cancellations as their CRJ brethren.

    Rather see Bach (or whomever) go visit like sized airports that have been successful and see what their marketing and business plans entail that we at COS can incorporate and adopt.

    Ken G
    July 7, 2013 at 8:09 am