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.
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.
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.”