The Dallas-based airline launches nonstop service Thursday between Colorado Springs and five of its largest hubs, the latest in a series of Southwest expansions designed to put idle employees and aircraft to work. Colorado Springs and Savannah, Ga., will be the 110th and 111th destinations in the Southwest network (both start service Thursday). The arrival has been nearly 20 years in the making, culminating a lengthy courtship that included a major effort in 2005, just before the carrier returned to Denver after a nearly 20-year absence.
Jason Van Eaton, Southwest's senior vice president of real estate and government affairs and executive ambassador to Colorado, said bookings on the airline's flights to and from Colorado Springs are "above expectations," with many coming from locals who canceled flights from Denver and rebooked them from Colorado Springs. He said that bodes well for future expansion, both more flights and destinations.
"We couldn't be happier with the performance of these routes. The community has responded very well, both business and leisure travelers," Van Eaton said. "We have been able to take people off the road and make it easier for Colorado Springs residents to travel. They are responding exactly as we had hoped" when Southwest announced plans in late October to launch service to the city.
Doug Price, CEO of Visit Colorado Springs, said traffic on the tourism-promotion agency's website surged more than tenfold after Southwest announced plans to add Colorado Springs to its route network. He said the airline's plans come at key time for the tourism industry as states begin to relax pandemic-related restrictions and the travel begins to recover.
"Our web traffic is a sign of how much interest there is in Southwest coming to Colorado Springs," Price said. "I believe Southwest will help the (local) tourism industry recover faster from the pandemic. With the opening of (The Broadmoor's) Bartolin Hall just before the pandemic hit, we now have new space, hotels and expanded air access that will enable Colorado Springs to attract more meetings than we have before."
Dirk Draper, CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, said Southwest's arrival also will help convince employers to move or expand in Colorado Springs. The airline's arrival turns what had been a weakness into a strength, giving businesses better access to key markets and making it easier to recruit employees, he said.
Christopher Lloyd, senior vice president and director of infrastructure and economic development for Richmond, Va.-based McGuireWoods Consulting, emailed Draper after the Southwest announcement that when he visited Colorado Springs in 2019, "one of the items many of the site selectors noted was the need to improve air service. This (Southwest's expansion to Colorado Springs) is a big deal.”
Draper said Southwest has been at or near the top of the chamber's wish list for close to 20 years, along with expansion of Interstate 25 between Colorado Springs and Denver, removing the two most significant local barriers to business. He called Southwest arrival "a significant milestone" that ranks as the city's biggest air service development in more than 20 years, perhaps longer.
Southwest is jumping headlong into the Colorado Springs market, rather than just "dipping our toe," Van Eaton said, by nearly doubling the number of seats available on outgoing flights and hiring 60 employees to staff it local operation, including many from other Southwest markets who want to live and work here. He called the support the airline has received from community and business leaders "second to none," saying it has helped bring additional bookings.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said he expects Southwest's arrival will be "a huge catalyst" for growth of the city's airport. He expects outbound airport passenger numbers will recover to pre-pandemic levels of about 840,000 this year after declining to a 37-year low last year. He is hopeful that traffic will hit 1 million for the first time since 2007 as soon as next year, and would "love it" if the airport breaks the record of 2.4 million passengers reached in the mid-1990s within five or six years.
"It is very key to the future of air travel in Colorado Springs that citizens embrace this to encourage airlines to locate here by taking advantage of the convenience of the hassle-free atmosphere here and be willing to switch planes" to get to their destination, Suthers said. "I hope the other airlines take a competitive attitude and realize Colorado Springs is a major growth center and a center of air travel going forward as an emerging (tourism) destination in the world."
Van Eaton said he is optimistic that response will grow to the point where Southwest will need every available gate at the Colorado Springs Airport. The carrier is starting with three gates, but could easily add three more since one gate is unused and two more are overflow gates for other carriers. That doesn't include the five-gate east terminal that has been mothballed for more than 20 years and is partially leased to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
"If Colorado Springs responds the way we think, we will fill them (airport gates) all, depending on how people react and what travel patterns develop," Van Eaton said. "Bookings so far are very positive, and travelers are booking more quickly and at a better clip than we expected. A lot of those bookings were (local) customers who traveled out of Denver, but hopefully we will develop relationships with new customers as well. We have high hopes for what service can be from Colorado Springs."
Once Southwest begins flying from Colorado Springs, Van Eaton said the airline will monitor traffic patterns to determine the ultimate destination of each traveler. Over the next several months, the carrier will study "what trends develop and adjust our schedule to meet those trends," which could include adding service to Houston, Baltimore or California, for example, if enough demand develops. He pointed out that all five of the airline's initial destinations — Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix — are among the top destinations for local travelers.
Suthers' wish list for potential destinations, not just for Southwest, but any airline serving Colorado Springs, includes restoring nonstop flights to Atlanta, Minneapolis, the San Francisco area, Seattle and Washington, D.C., but also Charlotte, N.C., Miami and New York. He dreams of a nonstop flight to Mexico City, but that would require the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expand its small operation at the local airport.
Colorado Springs had been on Southwest's "radar" for many years, but Van Eaton said excess capacity due to the pandemic allowed the airline to enter a market it had long considered for expansion. Southwest has maintained relationships with local airport and city officials for many years, which he said "blossomed and deepened" during the pandemic, when air travel declined by more than half and remains far below peak levels.
Suthers said Southwest's arrival "has been a long time in coming," starting when former Mayor Lionel Rivera made landing Southwest an issue in his 2003 election campaign. That led to the unsuccessful effort to land Southwest in 2004-05, more meetings with former Mayor Steve Bach over the years and a meeting Suthers had with Southwest officials after he was elected in 2015. The airline's answer was always no, until COVID dealt the travel industry a devastating hit.
"We were not high on their radar, but that all changed last fall," Suthers said. "We were surprised when they contacted us in the fall and requested a high-level meeting to assess whether Southwest was a fit in Colorado Springs," leading to a two-day meeting with Suthers, Price and Draper to tour the airport, downtown and other parts of the city.
Southwest came away from the meeting impressed and the city sealed the deal with a $2.5 million package of private and public incentives that included paying for some startup expenses and marketing. Suthers said Southwest never asked for incentives, but the package provided concrete evidence of widespread community support that would ensure the routes would be successful and profitable from the beginning.
Southwest's move into Colorado Springs is part of a much larger expansion in the state, including seasonal flights to Steamboat Springs and Telluride, leasing another 16 gates (the airline now has 24 gates in Denver) now under construction at Denver International Airport and spending nearly $100 million on a maintenance hangar, also at DIA. The gates are part of a $2 billion construction program at DIA to build 39 gates on all three concourses and renovate the main terminal.
"If you had told me 1½ years ago that we would be in four markets in Colorado, I would have thought you were crazy, but we are reacting to the market," Van Eaton said. Southwest started adding cities in September with Miami and Palm Springs, Calif., and added several others, including Colorado Springs, Steamboat Springs and Telluride after that. The airline also is adding another six cities during the next three months.
Plans for the airline that would become Southwest were hatched in 1966 in the San Antonio offices of Herb Kelleher, a lawyer, amateur pilot and entrepreneur. Rollin King was paying to liquidate his previous unsuccessful venture into the airline industry, Wild Goose Flying Service. King wanted to start a new airline to shuttle passengers quickly and inexpensively between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, with the initial route map sketched on a napkin.
King and Kelleher incorporated Southwest Airlines in 1967 and successfully sought state approval for their flight plans. They would spend the next four years in court fights with other airlines trying to keep Southwest on the ground, including a successful appeal to the Texas Supreme Court the day before the airline flew its first flights to the three destinations on June 18, 1971. Southwest made an early name for itself with one-way fares as low as $12 for night and weekend flights.
The carrier lost money for its first two years, fought fare wars from larger competitors and an attempt by the city of Dallas to close Love Field in Dallas, Southwest's headquarters and operations base, when Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened. Southwest successfully fought the Love Field closure in court and won the fare wars with a unique offer — not only did the carrier match its competitors' fares, it also offered them a free bottle of whiskey if they paid Southwest's higher fare — which became an overnight hit.
Southwest went public in 1976 and made a profit every year until the pandemic hit last year. Southwest served only Texas cities until 1979, when it added New Orleans. The carrier added Denver to its network in 1983 but pulled out three years later to use the aircraft on those routes elsewhere. Southwest would not return to Denver, now its largest hub, or anywhere else in Colorado for nearly 20 years. Congress limited flights at Love Field to adjacent states, hobbling Southwest's expansion, legislation that wasn't fully repealed until 2014.
The upstart airline developed a cult following by keeping its ticket prices well below its competitors, by not offering assigned seats and not charging passengers for checked baggage. By not assigning seats, Southwest could load its planes faster and get more flights each day out of its aircraft. Southwest also used low-cost airports like Love Field, Hobby Airport in Houston, Oakland in the San Francisco Bay area and Islip on Long Island to serve the New York market. Southwest started expanding to major airports in 2003, starting with Philadelphia.
Southwest expanded beyond its western U.S. routes in the 1990s to the eastern and southeastern U.S. and became the nation's largest domestic carrier in 2013. The U.S. Transportation Department studied in 1993 how Southwest's low fares prompted other carriers to reduce prices and increase service to keep their passengers, which the agency called "The Southwest Effect." Southwest's expansion to Denver in 2006 prompted a similar response that has kept fares in Denver among the nation's lowest.