Big names will tackle problems at airport

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Tuesday morning, speaking from a makeshift media facility on the second level of the Colorado Springs Airport terminal, Mayor Steve Bach announced the creation of an “Airport Air Service Task Force.” Given that the city and its enterprises already benefit from the advice of scores of citizen advisory panels, such an announcement wouldn’t ordinarily merit a dedicated news conference.

This five-member task force is different. Its members include El Pomar Foundation CEO Bill Hybl, Broadmoor CEO Steve Bartolin, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, and retired Air Force Gen. Victor Renuart.

Mayor Bach lavished praise upon the group, also saying Bartolin would represent Broadmoor owner Philip Anschutz on the task force.

Hybl will be chairman of the task force, which will investigate ways to improve service, flight frequency, nonstop destinations and financing.

“We can only make recommendations,” Hybl said. “There are lots of smaller airports that are experiencing the same problems, with reduced service and fewer destinations. There’s no option on or off the table. We’ll be looking for fresh ideas and not be captured by history.”

Asked to clarify a reference to financing, Hybl was noncommittal.

“It would involve what you pay, how you pay for it and what are the underlying costs,” he said.

Bartolin confirmed that improved air service for Colorado Springs is “at the top of Mr. Anschutz’ priority list.”

Bach shared at least one proposal with the group. “So many people from southern Colorado bypass our airport and drive to Denver,” he said. “We’re not just the Colorado Springs Airport — we’re a regional airport for southern Colorado. We may rename the airport, have a contest — wouldn’t that be fun?”

Re-naming it (Southern Colorado Regional Airport?) might be the least of the facility’s problems.

Funded by a bond issue authorized by Colorado Springs voters in 1991, the existing terminal opened in 1994. Within two years, passenger enplanements reached 2.5 million, thanks to a brash start-up airline. Western Pacific Airlines offered 33 daily departures to 20 airports, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Newark and Washington.

Since those halcyon days, passenger numbers at the airport have declined almost every year. Estimates for 2013 call for 670,000 enplanements, barely 25 percent of the 1996 total.

Many factors have driven the decline, but the principal culprits appear to have been airline consolidation and cost cutting, the disappearance of the region’s high-tech manufacturing sector and the dominant position of Denver International Airport.

Airline cost per enplaned passenger, at $1.32 when the new local terminal opened, reached $4.15 in 1998, $7.90 in 2003 and nearly $13 last year. DIA’s fees, once substantially higher, have dropped steadily during the past two decades.

The trip to Denver may be unpleasant, but cost and convenience have lured many travelers. DIA offers hundreds of daily nonstops and much lower fares — a lethal combination.

As traffic plummeted, local business recruitment suffered as well. Relocating businesses are reluctant to set up shop in cities lacking nonstops to multiple destinations and convenient connections to major hubs.

In a May interview, Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Doug Price discussed the importance of air service to the Colorado Springs community.

“When we’re manning a booth at a trade show,” said Price, “the first two questions we get are always the same. Can you guess what they are? The first question is: ‘Where is Colorado Springs?’ We tell them we’re about an hour south of Denver, so that locates us in their mind. The second question is: ‘Do you have an airport?’”

Several months ago, The Broadmoor considered sponsoring a shuttle service to transport guests to DIA. The hotel eventually abandoned the idea, and Bartolin apparently believes the new task force will find ways to revive the airport.

Three months ago, the city issued a request for proposals to develop an airport marketing plan. Although the city offered to pay up to $150,000 for such a plan, it has yet to hire a consultant.

The five task force members collectively represent local businesses, nonprofits, higher education and the military. All four sectors have a substantial stake in better service. The question is simple: Who wants it enough to pay for it?

Asked whether Anschutz views Colorado Springs as a “fix and flip,” or as a “fix and hold,” Bartolin was initially puzzled, but then brightened.

“Oh, I see what you mean,” he said. “I believe that Mr. Anschutz’ plans are very much for the long term.”