New Colorado Springs-Area Airlines Flying High So Far

Colorado Springs Airport passengers, like Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind," have eagerly embraced dashing new airlines, only to watch them depart a few months later, leaving behind bittersweet memories of once-easy connections, convenience and competitive - even low - prices.

Local airport officials resigned themselves to the meteoric rise and equally dramatic fall of Western Pacific Airlines from 1995 to 1998. It hurt to lose the promising hometown carrier that captured 35 percent of the 2.4 million Colorado Springs enplanements in 1996.

January and February enplanements were off 7.3 percent compared to 2006, according to airport records, and 2006 was the second lowest since 1995 for total passenger enplanements.

But based on the arrival this year of two new regional airlines - ExpressJet and Midwest Airlines - with nonstop flights to West Coast and Midwest destinations, business travelers might once again have a reason to believe.

And according to early reports from both companies, that optimism might be well-founded.

ExpressJet continues to operate Continental Express, initiated its own branded coast-to-coast service this month after two years of planning. The airline is using 69 Embraer jets to serve 24 cities. From Colorado Springs, it offers two flights daily to San Diego, Sacramento and Ontario, Calif.

Company spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said that since the inaugural flight to Sacramento and Ontario on April 28 and the first direct flight to San Diego on May 7, bookings have grown steadily, although no data is available for exact load factors.

That news has found a receptive audience with economic development officials, as well as military and corporate residents hungry for easy access to popular destinations.

"Airline service is certainly an important factor in corporate site selection," said Mike Kazmierski, president of the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. "In fact, we've included news of the additional direct flights to California in our new Southern California marketing campaign. "

Colorado Springs Aviation Director Mark Earle said that Midwest Airlines had been on the airport's list and was initially contacted on behalf of Colorado Springs by a consultant, "but they made the first call ... and they advised us in that call that they were ready to announce the market. "

Kazmierski said the airline's future is promising, especially since Midwest connects with regular flights to Washington, D.C., a popular destination with military and defense contracts.

"Any time we can make it easier to move back and forth to Washington, when a company thinks about expanding, it makes Colorado Springs that much more attractive," he said.

ExpressJet has diversified its service package to include a relationship with Delta Connections, Delta's regional service carrier for 18 cities, but one of its most promising strategies is to expand into private charter aviation.

"We have started a new corporate aviation division featuring 50-seat planes dedicated to charter service," Nicholas said. "Whether it's a baseball or basketball team that needs to be transported to a game, a racing team and crew, a sales group or even a corporate golf trip, we have been surprised and very pleased with results so far. "

Matt Pasowicz, ExpressJet's general manager in Colorado Springs, said he is pleased with the first month's activity. On a recent weekday, for example, of the18 passengers boarding a San Diego flight, two had purchased their tickets that day and paid the same price as regularly advertised fares.

"If we have room, we don't charge an additional fee for last minute ticketing," Pasowicz said.

During final boarding for the San Diego flight, local businessman Brad Fisk approached the counter on his way to catch another flight.

"Do you have a list of your routes?" he asked.

He was interested in direct flights.

"You've only been able to get to the West Coast on two-leg flights through Denver, Dallas or Salt Lake City," he said. "It will be great to have a new option - and save a lot of travel time. "

San Diego passengers Carmen Tribble and John Scott said their company had arranged the regional flight based primarily on the airline's one-stop service and seat availability.

Midwest Airlines will kick off its service July 1, with three daily nonstop flights to Kansas City. From there passengers can connect to 17 other destinations.

The growing regional carrier is the 2007 Freddie Award winner (named for Sir Freddie Laker, the founder of the first low-fare international airline, knighted by Queen Elizabeth and mentored by Richard Branson) for excellent customer service. Randy Peterson, owner of Frequent Flyer Inc. and the publisher of the airline industry's Inside Flyer newsletter, said that more than 450,000 "value voting" travelers went online to rank their flying experiences.

"The award used to only go to the majors, but beginning in 1999 and 2000, the low cost carriers started to win - and this year Midwest took first place," he said, adding that the Freddie's criteria is designed to evaluate best value for award redemption, customer service and o-time flights.

With service still a month away, Midwest has only started to track advance bookings. Business travelers usually wait to book two weeks out, but summer reservations look strong.

Randy Smith, Midwest's vice president of sales and distribution, said the real test will be this fall, when college kids are back in school and summer vacation is finished.

"We'll have to educate the business and off-season leisure travel market," he said. "We have 44 flights a day out of there (Kansas City). It's much easier than operating out of a larger hub airport, and it helps keep ticket costs down. And you don't have the long walks or security lines. "

In addition to the usual "legacy" programs, such as frequent flyer clubs and mileage credit cards, Midwest has instituted a rewards program from small businesses that refer other companies. The Biz Perks plan is designed to track the frequency of corporate travel as well as referrals. When a customer qualifies, rewards include free meals, bonus miles and free tickets.

"We know we can't compete with the big companies so we're focusing much of our marketing on small business clients," Smith said.

The company's recent partnership agreement with Northwest Airlines also should benefit customers, connecting with flights to Minneapolis and several international destinations.

Here in the Pikes Peak region, some companies are already jumping at the chance to maximize the impact of new travelers to Colorado Springs from four new cities. Broadmoor hotel vice president of sales and marketing John Washko said his sales team had already hosted a travel writers trip to Colorado Springs on ExpressJet. Participants were invited not only to preview the airline's new service, but spent time touring the area and at the hotel. He has also allocated increased budget for advertising in publications like the Kansas City Magazine and other "geo-targeted" media in Southern California.

"Having two new airlines and four new cities will definitely affect our occupancy rates and revenues this year," he said, declining to predict specific results at this early point. "The Midwest has always been a strong supporter of Colorado and The Broadmoor. They don't have as large number of in-state resorts from which to choose as we do. And a lot of companies located there generate regional meetings in Colorado Springs. And Southern California is densely populated with people who want to visit. Both ExpressJet and Midwest are a tremendous asset to the entire community, not just the hospitality industry. "

Earle sees more direct flights to more cities as key to the Springs' success in attracting new businesses and for economic development.

Like Kazmierski, he also views connectivity to the West Coast as a high priority - and earlier this year predicted that ExpressJet's flights could increase enplanements by as much as 7.4 percent.

"We have sufficient room for two or three more small airline operations in the main concourse, or one large one. After that we will have to begin using the east concourse," he said.