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Destination COS: The Resurgence of a Regional Airport

A busy ramp at Colorado Springs Airport. Airlines like Frontier are adding service as the region grows. Photo by: By NWL757 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Colorado Springs Airport has a long and colorful history. Originally opened in 1927 with only two gravel runways, the first scheduled airline flight went from El Paso through Pueblo to Denver, and back. COS has been through trials and tribulations throughout the years with bankrupt airlines and countless broken promises. But to the delight of Colorado Springs and the surrounding communities, the regional airport has begun a remarkable recovery.

Remember the Simpsons Jet? The Glory Days of Western Pacific Airlines and COS

FOX paid Western Pacific $1M a year to display this special themed jet. Photo by AeroIcarus (CC 2.0).

Western Pacific Airlines started operations at COS in the spring of 1995 with eight 737-300s providing service to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. The airline is infamous for its LogoJet program, which made the exterior of the airliner a flying billboard.

Of particular note, FOX Television paid WesPac $1 million a year for a LogoJet featuring the Simpsons animated series during ratings sweeps. The Simpsons jet, as it was called, was a bit of a phenomenon. Encouraged by early success, WesPac expanded its fleet and had eighteen 737-300s in operation with advertisers expanding to resorts, casinos and even the City of Colorado Springs. An updated terminal facility was built in 1994 because of the marked increase in passenger numbers.

In 1996, however, impatient investors hungry for profit got rid of the WesPac management team, including the original founder Ed Beauvais who was replaced by Robert Peiser. Peiser served as Chief Financial Officer of Trans World Airlines from 1994 to 1996, following TWA’s emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This fact foreshadows what was forthcoming for WesPac and COS, as Peiser moved toward reorganization.

It became clear that WesPac was operating in the red. Peiser attempted to attract more business travelers to augment revenue and scrapped the LogoJet program. He also moved the airline to Denver International, supposedly to attract more passengers even though some would later say the move was to secure more attractive financing terms for the pending bankruptcy. After a proposed merger with Frontier Airlines was tabled, WesPac was liquidated and ceased operations in February 1998, a milestone date in demise of COS.

Airline Consolidation Cripples Non-Hubs Like Colorado Springs Airport, While Denver International Flourishes

After WesPac was dissolved, a wave of consolidation hit the airlines. As of 2015, the nine major U.S. airlines were reduced to only four: American, United, Delta and Southwest. The largest airports, including Denver International, were effectively controlled by one or two airlines creating what some refer to as airline monopolies. Changing industry conditions severely affected non-hub airports like COS. The result of carriers’ consolidation left it a mere shadow of what it once was, while Denver International continued to grow.

The airlines had to reevaluate routes in order to maximize profits and eliminate what was called unprofitable flying. This led to increased passenger load per flight. Load factors now averaged 80% for some of the majors flying out of Denver.

Fuel costs, when calculated on a per-passenger basis, also led to a decline in profitability. There was increased emphasis on fuel-efficient aircraft as airlines changed their fleet mix, decreasing the use of smaller, regional jets in favor of large new aircraft. The cost squeezing and consolidation had detrimental effects on the smaller facility in Colorado Springs, shifting an even larger percentage of traffic to Denver International.

Fast forward to 2012, when Frontier Airlines added nonstop service at COS to several destinations, in addition to the already existing daily flights to their hub in Denver. Service to Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, Portland, OR, Phoenix-Sky Harbor and Orlando was discontinued, however, in 2013, after Frontier announced the new service routes were not meeting financial expectations. After the back and forth with Frontier, at this point the future of COS looked bleak. But nobody foresaw what the future held for the beleaguered airport.

COS Begins to Rally Once Again

A Frontier A321. Frontier began receiving the larger jets in 2014. Photo by: By Griz13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikipedia Commons.
After more than a decade of negative projections, Colorado Springs Airport has begun a positive trajectory and is capping off a year of positive growth. The off-again, on-again Frontier Airlines has played a major role in fueling the COS recovery.

Beginning in 2016, the airport began to rally once again as Frontier reinstated nonstop service to Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix-Sky Harbor. Then, starting in March 2017, Frontier added seven new cities with seasonal service from COS including major hubs such as Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington bringing the total number of cities with nonstop service to 17. Frontier’s continued expansion includes some current additions, including service to Ft. Myers Florida beginning October 5 and service to Tampa slated to start October 6. Rounding out the airlines operating out of the recovering regional airport are American, Delta, Allegiant, and United.

COS airport non-stop options are expanding. Source: VisitCOS.com

The news is not all rosy, however, as Horizon, the regional carrier for Alaska Airlines, is being forced to discontinue service to Colorado Springs effective November 4 due to a pilot shortage. Horizon is also pulling out of other airports because of the aviator shortfall. In spite of this recently announced setback, the overall growth of the Colorado Springs market as a whole is buoying COS growth.

A 2017 forecast from the University of Colorado Springs Economic Forum predicts the strong economic indicators of the past two years will continue well into next year, fueled by the robust job market. Consumers are expected to continue making major purchases on things like furniture and appliances, and the travel and airline industry are also benefactors in the economic boon, with both leisure and business travel showing an upsurge.

This is great news for a beloved regional airport that has seen its ups and downs over the years. From its fledgling start early in the century as a local airport with two gravel runways, to the roaring ’90s heyday featuring the WesPac FOX TV Simpsons jet, to the present-day recovery based on a strong local economy, COS is poised to riseĀ into the next decade as a major player in the airline industry.

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Written by Kim Clarke

Kim Clarke

Kim Clarke is a Freelance Writer and Editor, specializing in the aviation industry and financial markets. She freelances for McGraw-Hill Financial, Avgeekery, Skydiving.com, USAHotAirBalloons and more. Past journalism experience includes Thomson Financial, CNN and Clear Channel Communications.

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