November 17, 2013 Updated: November 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm
The first and most obtainable goal for improving the trajectory of the Pikes Peak region's economy involves making the Colorado Springs Airport flourish. It needs more flights to more cities at lower fares. A bustling airport will mean more primary employers and tourists, each of which imports wealth.
The Springs Airport's only big dilemma is Denver International Airport, the county's fifth busiest, which is only an hour away for hundreds of thousands of travelers to and from metropolitan Colorado Springs. The number of carriers offering routine flights out of DIA creates a competitive pricing environment that reduces the burden of driving a short stint up I-25. For that reason, 47 percent of air travelers from Colorado Springs and Pueblo areas drive past the Colorado Springs Airport each day to catch flights out of DIA.
A business that wants to compete with a larger competitor has to become more inviting. The experience must be equal or better, but mostly the customer must be able to get the same result at a lower price. One survey found that 77 percent of inbound and outbound leisure and business travelers rated the cost of fares as the first or second-most important factor in choosing which airport to use. Colorado Springs Airport is modern, attractive and convenient. It's safe to say the facilities are more convenient and just as comfortable as those in Denver.
So the question remains, how can the local airport lower costs so more airlines will use it?
A story in today's Gazette by reporter Wayne Heilman shows it can be done. Heilman wrote about four airports the Airport Air Service Task Force has studied in its mission to recommend fare-lowering opportunities. The peer airports - in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Long Beach, Calif.; Madison, Wis., and Tucson, Ariz. - each compete with a major hub within 150 miles. All but Tucson increased passenger numbers between 2008 and 2012.
Grand Rapids Gerald R. Ford International saw passenger numbers jump by 17.7 percent between 2008 and 2012 and activity continues increasing this year.
"We met with all carriers and showed them with data on how they could serve this market profitably," said Dan Wiersma, executive director of the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan. "We were able to provide them information on the market on travel patterns including frequency, destination and demand profiles that allowed them to have access to information they could not get any other way that reduced the risk of them entering the market."
To make a long story short, the airport sold its airlines on its merits. The sales pitch worked because the airport had taken steps to make takeoffs and landings cost less. With lower overhead, airlines were able to offer lower prices. The lower prices brought more customers, which attracted more airlines, which continued driving prices down. Today, fares to and from Grand Rapids are so reasonable it seldom makes sense to drive to airports in Chicago and Detroit. Airlines are happy; passengers are happy. Like all great business models, buyers and sellers each win.
New airport management and the task force have ideas and plans for substantially lowering costs for airlines. They are eliminating 25 open positions, while restructuring and paying off debts. They are investing in amenities that will attract more premium-fare passengers, who help airlines lower costs for casual and vacation travelers.
Things are moving in the right direction, but even the best among experts have their limits. What could help make a good process better would be more input and feedback from people the airport serves.
In the interest of enhancing community dialogue on the topic, The Gazette will host its next "Community Conversations" event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, at the East Terminal Unit of the airport. The conversation is titled "Destination Colorado Springs: Our Airport's Future."
The panel will include Interim Airport Director Dan Gallagher; Steve Bartolin, president of The Broadmoor Hotel and member of the airport task force; Chris Thornton, chairman of the Airport Advisory Commission; Kathy Boe, CEO and founder of Boecore Inc.; and Damon Hylton, an airport marketing consultant. Katie Carrol, The Gazette's director of communications and public relations, will moderate.
Join the conversation or watch it live on gazette.com. Either way, get involved and help the airport help our city.