Thursday, January 17, 2013

Opinion: It's the airport, stupid (poll) - Colorado Springs

It’s happening again. In a story all-too-familiar, another airline has added flights and tried to capitalize on the Colorado Springs Airport only to give up a short time later.

Last year in April, Frontier announced plans to begin six new nonstop Airbus flights to connect the Springs directly with Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, and San Diego. The company also proposed direct flights to Washington’s Reagan National Airport but failed to win federal approval of its proposal.

The Frontier experiment was the biggest development at the Springs airport since 1996, when Western Pacific Airlines established it’s start-up hub in Colorado Springs. Western Pacific’s strategy was to compete with Denver International Airport by using low fares to attract passengers from metropolitan Denver.

Western Pacific’s strategy was great for filling planes, but not so good for making the company profitable enough to stay in business.

Frontier added flights with no intention of attracting fliers away from Denver, which is the airline’s hub. It would make do with passengers in southern Colorado and Colorado Springs, a city that’s grown in population by 35 percent since the Western Pacific days.

Alas, the airline learned that too many Springs residents are in the habit of flying out of DIA. As the fifth busiest airport in the United States and the 10th busiest in the world, DIA offers seemingly irresistible options for affordable travel.

The problem airlines have with Colorado Springs isn’t the airport. It’s a great facility that’s much more user-friendly than DIA. Fliers park closer and easier. They wait in shorter lines for ticketing, baggage check and security. It’s no harder to get from Denver to the Springs than from the Springs to Denver, so just as DIA attracts customers from here the Springs airport should attract customers from Denver.

Colorado needs two major airports to keep prices more competitive. More importantly, the Springs needs a thriving “big city” airport to help create good jobs. City leaders talk unceasingly about the need for more jobs and economic development, but the lack of a abundant nonstop flights to other major cities may undermine efforts to attract desirable employers.

As a city of 420,000 residents, in a metropolitan area of 650,000 — with enviable potential for continued population growth — Colorado Springs should easily support a major airport with a greater abundance of airlines and flights.

Attracting great companies, and helping those we already have, involves making Colorado Springs more attractive than competing markets. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City Council, the mayor, the El Paso Board of County Commissioners and the Regional Business Alliance should make the airport among the highest priorities.

We know city leaders work hard to attract airlines, and they should take credit for getting Frontier to add routes last year. But the promotion we hear, telling people to fly out of Colorado Springs, underwhelms the listener.

Anyone in Colorado Springs knows recreational and business travelers who fly DIA almost by default, without even considering their local options. It’s an old habit that’s hard to break.

The loss of recently added flights by Frontier is disappointing, to say the least. But we should not give up. Instead, we should fight for the airport like never before. Community leaders should persuade Southwest Airlines to give this airport a try. When they say “no, not right now,” keep on pitching it. But recruitment is not nearly enough. Community leaders should also partner more with airlines to promote the benefits of flying to and from Colorado Springs.

Help the airlines make this work. Have the courage to take on DIA and get more people from southern Colorado, and Denver, flying from Colorado Springs.

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