Oct. 06--Within days of learning in January that Frontier Airlines would reduce its flights to Colorado Springs, executives from the city's airport turned their attention to Alaska Airlines, the nation's seventh-largest carrier and one that has been on a growth spurt since 2012.
In what would amount to a whirlwind courtship, they met several times with officials from Alaska Airlines. They undertook a number of projects and restructuring moves to make the airport more attractive to passengers and airlines -- including Alaska. They exchanged phone calls with Alaska executives and kept working to woo them.
Next month, their intensive effort will bear fruit when Seattle-based Alaska begins daily nonstop flights between Colorado Springs and its hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It's the first new destination and carrier added to the Colorado Springs Airport since Frontier Airlines not only cut service but exited the market in April.
Alaska won't fill the hole left by Frontier, which accounted for 20 percent of the airport's passenger traffic, but its arrival is expected to generate more than $500,000 in annual revenue and boost traffic by more than 20,000 passengers a year.
Even though it lives in the shadow of Denver International Airport, the Colorado Springs Airport deserves consideration from airlines looking for an edge, said Dan Gallagher, who became interim director of the local airport in March.
"You can't really discount a county of more than 600,000 people that has grown 8.5 percent a year since 2007. You can try to catch those passengers at DIA, but why compete with every other airline there when you can serve them from their natural home (airport) with far fewer competitors," Gallagher said.
So far, he said, Alaska "has told us that advance bookings for this flight are close to what they are getting in Denver to the same destination this far in advance."
Alaska executives declined an interview, but said in a recent statement that it's been expanding in Colorado, including a seasonal flight to Steamboat Springs that starts Dec. 18, and the Springs is a natural fit. The city, it said, "offers a wealth of business and recreational opportunities, and thus is a solid market for air travel."
Deal was tenuous
There was a time when the Alaska deal seemed to be on thin ice. In March, the airport manager resigned in a dispute with Mayor Steve Bach, and Alaska wanted to know "what is going on" -- and whether airport officials were continuing with their plans to reduce debt, cut other expenses and boost marketing.
Indeed, they were. In doing so, they hope to lower rental rates and landing fees by more than 25 percent, despite losing $3.5 million in annual revenue Frontier generated.
The changes were a key part of the effort to land Alaska, which wanted to make sure it could profitably serve a market that Frontier had abandoned.
But Alaska's strategy to serve the route is much different from the strategy used by Frontier between May and November. Frontier operated four flights a week on a seasonal basis with 138-seat Airbus A319 aircraft, while the Alaska flight will be operated daily by SkyWest Airlines with a 70-seat regional jet, about half the size of the aircraft Frontier was using on the same route.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of Leeham Co., a Seattle-area aviation consulting firm, said Alaska "recognized that Colorado Springs is a small market and probably couldn't support a (Boeing) 737," which is the only aircraft in the carrier's 128-plane fleet.
"They are coming in with a much smaller aircraft from a market where they are the dominant player," Hamilton said. "You have to wonder what strategy Frontier had in serving either market -- Seattle or Colorado Springs. It probably was a market they should not have been in to begin with."
Gallagher said he thinks Frontier did prove there was demand for service to Seattle from Colorado Springs, and added that fares were better locally. But no one made flyers aware of the service, and Frontier's planes often departed with a lot of vacant seats.
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