Each week we come up with a new online poll for the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Our goals are to come up with questions that strike a chord with the local business community and spur a noteworthy response.
When the pool of responses is sufficient, the result often is an interesting snapshot of sentiment in the business community.
So it has been in the past week to this question: What was the biggest economic development news in Colorado Springs for 2016?
We expected a close race between the National Cybersecurity Center becoming reality and the opening of the Catalyst Campus downtown, both hugely positive developments for an economically healthy future. The third option on this poll was put there primarily just to gauge awareness: “Increased flights from the Colorado Springs Airport.”
For the poll’s first five days, the airport story stood tall as the runaway No. 1 answer. The late push went to Catalyst Campus, creating a close race at the finish with 36 percent for Catalyst Campus, 35 percent for the airport and the National Cybersecurity Center also holding strong at 29 percent.
Still, the overriding message is clear. No matter what else is going on, the Colorado Springs business community fully realizes the airport’s importance. If it loses relevance, as it did during and after the recession with a steady decrease in flights and passengers, that poses a real threat to our overall economic stability.
The corner has been turned in 2016, due in part to the return of Frontier.
It has never been more obvious than during the past half-decade. During the years of 2011-12, local air service benefited greatly from Frontier Airlines providing flights to and from Denver — connecting to its many destinations with direct flights to/from DIA — as well as nonstops to such cities as Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego.
But that all changed in 2013 when Frontier suddenly pulled back service and then dropped Colorado Springs completely. That took away more than 20 percent of the airport’s passengers, as well as $2 million or more in annual revenue.
It hurt in another way, as well, because without Frontier’s presence, the other main airlines here (United, American and Delta) didn’t have to be so aggressive in offering lower fares. That factor alone induced many regular business travelers to take more flights out of Denver, fewer out of Colorado Springs.
Then-Mayor Steve Bach tried to battle the negative trend in 2013, assembling a task force of business leaders — Bill Hybl of El Pomar Foundation, Pam Shockley-Zalabak of UCCS, Broadmoor Chairman Steve Bartolin and retired Gen. Victor Renuart, among others. That group, which included a direct connection to new Broadmoor owner Philip Anschutz, looked capable of reversing the airport’s downward spiral.
Late that year, Alaska Airlines came in with direct service to Seattle. It was (and is) just one flight a day each way, but still a good move in the right direction.
But no new service came in 2014 and 2015, as the existing airlines maneuvered with the number of flights and size of planes serving Colorado Springs. Meanwhile, airport management and city leaders worked in other ways to help the situation, lowering costs for airlines (a key factor in their strategic moves) and making upgrades to the main terminal.
The corner has been turned in 2016 — due to those behind-the-scenes efforts — but also thanks to the return of Frontier, adding service to Phoenix, Las Vegas and most recently Orlando. From all indications, if those flights go well, Frontier will add more.
The airport’s monthly numbers are beginning to show clear improvement as Frontier’s impact increases. In October, 58,146 passengers flew out of Colorado Springs, a 10.8 percent increase over 52,490 in October 2015, with Frontier producing all of the difference (a little more than 8,000 passengers).
Another important statistic is “load factor,” or the percentage of seats filled. That was 87.8 percent in October, thanks to such numbers as these: Delta, 94.3 percent; United, 89.3 percent; American, 87.8 percent; Alaska, 86.9 percent (up from 80.1 a year ago).The year-to-date numbers also look strong, topped by a 7.8 percent increase in departing passengers through 10 months, from 487,945 in 2015 to 525,814 this year.
And the airport hasn’t stopped trying to please the local market. The now-annual deal of $1 a day long-term parking for November and December makes a huge difference, as I personally discovered on a recent vacation: 15 days’ parking, total charge $15, and with nice people serving you from start to finish. Compare that to Denver — actually, you can’t.
People are obviously noticing. They want their airport to thrive, because that can help lure more visiting tourists, more relocating companies and more locals preferring convenience over Denver.
Without doubt, 2016 has been the Colorado Springs Airport’s best year in a long time. And at this rate, 2017 very well might be even better.