The Colorado Springs Airport boarded more passengers last year than any other year since 2010, but ended the year with five consecutive monthly declines that raised questions about whether it is too dependent on the whims of Frontier Airlines.
The 861,625 passengers that boarded flights from the Springs in 2018 was up 2.6 percent from 2017. But boardings had been up nearly 15 percent through July, before Frontier suspended flights to eight seasonal destinations in August and September; service will resume to four of those cities in April and May. Even with the suspensions, Frontier’s passenger total for the year was still up nearly 12 percent from 2017.
Traffic in December, which fell 14.1 percent to 62,252 passengers, would have increased slightly without a 46.6 percent drop in passengers from Frontier. Delta and United reported gains in December, while American had a small drop for the month. Passenger numbers also fell every month between August and November, including a 21.7 percent drop in October that was the biggest decline in 4½ years.
“Colorado Springs has no choice but to be dependent on Frontier; the airport is looking at every other airline that has potential to serve the Springs,” said Mike Boyd, an Evergreen-based aviation industry consultant that works with the airport. “The fact is that virtually every market Frontier went into from Colorado Springs worked great; if a market works out of Denver, it will work out of the Springs.”
Frontier will take delivery of up to 100 aircraft during the next three years and will need to find profitable markets to serve, and Colorado Springs has been a good market for the Denver-based carrier, Boyd said. However, Frontier “looks at markets all over the country, and if they can get a better return somewhere else, they will. They wouldn’t be coming back (with more flights this spring) if they didn’t think it would work.”
Boyd forecasts that traffic numbers for the Springs will be slightly up this year, based on schedules airlines have filed with federal regulators. Those schedules show Frontier keeping many of the seasonal flights it is adding back this spring for a longer period and the three large national carriers serving Colorado Springs are keeping schedules at the same level as last year or even adding some seat capacity.
Greg Phillips, director of aviation for the city of Colorado Springs, said the airport is not financially dependent on Frontier because it gets relatively little revenue from Frontier. That’s because the airport’s incentive program reduces costs dramatically for the first two years after airlines add more flights or launch new routes. Those incentives are available to any airline serving the Springs, including current carriers.
“Our costs are significantly below Denver and many other airports and our incentive program is much better than most other airports, but it is still a struggle and a challenge” to attract air service to an airport that is about 90 miles south of Denver International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest with some of the lowest fares available, Phillips said.
“We leave no stone unturned to make a solid case for airlines to build service here,” Phillips said. “Only 18 percent of the passengers in our market area fly from this airport. They are driving north for nonstop flights, so if we can get more flights for Colorado Springs, we will stimulate traffic. Fares are significantly lower here than they have been in the past, but the carriers are still profitable.”
The airport’s management most recently has tried to convince Minneapolis-based, low-fare carrier Sun Country Airlines to add the Springs to its schedule, pitching flights to 11 cities that no airline serves locally. Sun Country already flies from Denver to five cities and is in the midst of revising its business model to become one of the nation’s lowest-fare airlines like Frontier, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, Phillips said.
“We have proven that low-cost services works in Colorado Springs. Passenger are filling planes here. We are saying why not try Colorado Springs as part of their transformation?” Phillips said. “Our top target is Southwest (Airlines) and they tell us that Colorado Springs is on their map, just not right now.”