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Colorado Springs Airport flies through turbulence

Between the Lines

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Mark Earle flew out of town last Friday, and he took Frontier Airlines.

You might wonder why the Colorado Springs airport's aviation director would consider Frontier, which just made Earle's job a lot harder. Fact is, Earle hadn't been expecting Frontier to shut down most of its Springs service, including all flights to and from Denver, with barely a month's notice.

Earle had feared that Frontier's nonstop flights from Colorado Springs to Orlando and San Diego might be cut back or eliminated (as they were). But the last thing he anticipated was for Frontier to abandon its productive service between Colorado Springs and Denver, which has helped thousands of local travelers connect through Frontier's hub at Denver International Airport.

"Airlines will spend months, even years, on the front end deciding whether to add service or flights in a city," Earle says. "But when they're deciding to pull out, they might do that immediately."

The problem, as Earle explains, is that Frontier wasn't in control of all its planes. After Republic Airways rescued Frontier from bankruptcy in 2009, Republic allowed Frontier to use its regional jets for some routes, including the short Springs-Denver flights. But when Republic decided to assign those planes elsewhere, Frontier had no inventory to shuffle.

That was the tough part for Earle: The decision to cut the Springs-Denver flights had nothing to do with their viability.

"You have to measure connecting flights differently," Earle says. "It's all about what they call 'system contribution,' which means Frontier's flights from here to Denver have been measured by how much they contributed to helping profitability of other flights out of Denver. That was working well for them."

Frontier began its service here six years ago with turboprop planes, slower but highly efficient for such a short flight. Republic took over, sold the turboprops and replaced them with regional jets. That was fine — until now.

Colorado Springs is left in scramble mode. United Airlines, which as of March 2 will have a monopoly on the Springs-Denver route, might add some flights or provide bigger planes to grab what had been Frontier's business. Other airlines serving Colorado Springs also stand to gain, because savvy travelers will seek other connections — such as American through Dallas, or Delta through Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

The sad part is that our airport has been investing in visible improvements, from enlarging the security area to creating a more pleasing gateway atmosphere for incoming passengers and turning the main terminal's bar-restaurant into an offshoot of the Springs' own Bristol Brewing Co.

Even before this latest news, Earle had been busy trying to cultivate more choices for local travelers. But one obstacle has been the three-headed monster to our north; Denver, says Earle, is the only U.S. airport with three airlines providing service to a full range of destinations (United, Frontier and Southwest). That's been good for fares out of Denver, and Earle says it's had a positive effect here because of the proximity. But can three airlines survive at that level in the long term? Nobody knows.

We shouldn't expect major changes because of Frontier's news, Earle says. You won't see Southwest swooping in to add Colorado Springs. But Earle says the same day as Frontier's announcement, he took calls from two other carriers about possibilities.

Earle also refuses to shame Springs travelers for flying out of Denver. He simply hopes people realize the subtle differences: Parking is far cheaper in the Springs, the drive is obviously shorter, and getting through security to your gate is much faster. Plus, the fares often aren't that much higher here.

"I have a lot of people tell me they'd rather go out of the Springs unless the fare difference is more than $150," Earle says. "Some even say $200. ... The bottom line is, if you look at other markets and airports our size, our pricing is excellent by comparison. Our approach is simply that if we have a good service here, people should try to support it, or the airlines won't keep it."

In the end, Earle admits, one factor will influence our airport's future more than any other — the economy.

"And not just the economy in general," Earle says. "It's all about Colorado Springs. As the local economy goes, so goes the airport."

routon@csindy.com

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