The Springs Cools Its Jets

Passenger traffic in 2005 totaled just over 2 million - less than half what it was in the mid-1990s - while the number of departures is down nearly 40 percent.


The main conference room in the finance department at Southwest Airlines' Dallas headquarters bears a sign with the name "Colorado Springs" printed against a mountain backdrop.

It's one of roughly a dozen such rooms Southwest christened after popular cities the airline doesn't yet serve.

For now, at least, it will remain the carrier's only link with Colorado Springs.

Southwest's decision late last year to launch flights in Denver rather than the Springs underscores the challenges Colorado's second-largest city faces as it tries to lure passengers and new airline service, a key component for attracting tourists, residents and businesses.

The city's airport is financially sound and moving forward on a promising new business park, and observers say its airline service is "adequate."

But the Springs has struggled to grow passenger traffic and boost service despite population gains and a nationwide expansion in air travel.

Although city leaders say they never put all their eggs in the Southwest basket, the airport hasn't been able to attract much discount service, making it in many cases a more expensive option than Denver International Airport.

Now that Southwest has established a growing presence at DIA, the Springs could find it even tougher to generate enough demand for new flights.

"Colorado Springs is going to have a very difficult time getting low-cost service," said Virginia-based airline consultant Darryl Jenkins. "It's a perfectly good airport with good managers, but when Southwest made the decision to go into Denver it really hurt Colorado Springs."

Golden age

The Springs is nearly a decade removed from its golden age of air travel.

In 1995, upstart low-cost carrier Western Pacific Airlines set up shop in the city, launching its first flight in April of that year. The airline quickly made a significant impact, lowering fares enough so that even Denver residents were making the trek south to catch flights.

By the end of 1996, annual traffic at the Colorado Springs Airport had rocketed by 71 percent to roughly 4.8 million passengers - triple what the airport was designed to handle. The number of nonstop markets it served jumped threefold, and the airport ranked as the 56th-busiest in the country.

WestPac planned a huge expansion to meet demand, promising to add five new gates and add a host of new destinations. Meanwhile, fares at DIA, which opened in 1995, were relatively high, because airlines had to pass on significant airport costs to customers.

WestPac, it seemed, had ushered in a new era of air travel in the region.

"The competitive vitality that we are bringing to this market is a huge benefit to the entire state of Colorado," WestPac chief Ed Beauvais told the Rocky Mountain News in 1996.

But the good times ended almost as quickly as they began.

WestPac, struggling with huge losses, fell hard. The carrier moved its headquarters and most of its flights to Denver by the summer of 1997 and shortly thereafter joined the pantheon of failed airlines.

Demand stagnant

Air service and demand in the Springs have never recovered. Passenger traffic in 2005 totaled just over 2 million - less than half what it was in the mid-1990s - while the number of departures is down nearly 40 percent.

In recent years, the airport's numbers have been relatively stagnant:

* Passenger traffic last year was lower than in 2001, when air travel nationwide dropped off sharply after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

* Departures are up 14 percent since 2001, yet much of the new service involves smaller regional planes that carry fewer passengers.

* The airport ranks as the 89th-busiest in the nation in terms of enplanements - down from 81st in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

* Fares in Colorado Springs are higher than those in Denver and the national average, according to the BTS. It's no wonder: Of the 14 nonstop routes offered from the airport, just two are served by more than one airline.

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