Southwest Airlines’ 1st year in Colorado Springs a ‘game changer’ | Subscriber-Only Content

The growth of Southwest Airlines at the Colorado Springs Airport has landed the airport a problem that most of the nation’s airports would welcome: not enough parking during peak travel periods.

The Dallas-based, low-fare giant has made a major impact at Colorado’s second-largest airport, becoming its largest carrier in the first month of service, boosting the airport’s passenger traffic to a 13-year high last year and helping to push airfares down 25.6% between the final quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of last year.

Southwest expanded to Colorado Springs March 11 with 13 daily nonstop flights to Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Colorado Springs Airport passenger numbers surge to 13-year high

“No one can deny that the arrival of Southwest in Colorado Springs has been a game changer,” said Johnna Reeder-Kleymeyer, who became CEO in December of the Colorado Springs Chamber & Economic Development Corp. “The Southwest Effect — once they come to an airport, you see an increased number of flights and lower fares through competition. We are very pleased with year one and want to continue and grow the partnership with our community.”

Southwest was a big part of surging passenger numbers at the airport — the carrier boarded more than 35% of the 935,952 passengers who left on ongoing flights last year in just a 9½-month period.

The annual total for 2021 was up more than 150% from 2020’s 37-year low, when travel nearly came to a stop in the early months of the pandemic , and was the most for any year since 2008.

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Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is confident the airport will hit 1 million passengers this year and is hoping for “at least 1.2 million,” which would be the most since 1.22 million in 2000.

That would be more than double the 586,783 passengers that boarded outgoing flights in 2015, Suthers’ first year as mayor, when he launched a high-profile campaign to boost local airline service.

“It has been what I expected — I thought Southwest would very quickly become the major airline here,” Suthers said. “But we need to make sure they stay by growing the load factor (the percentage of seats sold, which was 64.7% for Southwest, compared to more than 70% for the airport’s four other carriers).

“I think their load factor will grow this year. We want to keep all of our carriers and see them grow.”

Colorado Springs Airport planning major terminal renovation

That growth has filled the airport’s parking lots on several busy days during the summer as well as the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. As a result, airport officials are looking at reopening a 500-space overflow parking lot last used in the late 1990s. Back then, Western Pacific Airlines used Colorado Springs as a hub and attracted more than 2.4 million outbound passengers at its peak in 1996.

Over the longer term, airport managers are studying whether to consolidate rental-car facilities in a parking garage near the overflow lot. That move would free up hundreds of spaces east of the short-term parking lot and allow expansion of long-term parking to the south on land where rental-car providers have offices and other facilities.

That project could cost more than $15 million, paid for by fees rental companies charge customers, and would take five years or more to complete.

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Greg Phillips, Colorado Springs aviation director, said the airport also is, as part of major renovation of the passenger terminal. it would include expanding the area where passengers line up to enter the security checkpoint; expanding the baggage handling system; and increasing passenger capacity at several gates.

Phillips said the airport also could squeeze more capacity out of its 12 gates by adopting a “common use,” or shared model, rather than each airline being assigned a gate or gates.

Jason Van Eaton, Southwest’s senior vice president of real estate and government affairs and executive ambassador to Colorado, said the airline “couldn’t be happier with the results of our first year in Colorado Springs.

“Travelers across the region have welcomed us with open arms and we became the market-share leader practically overnight. We are working at continuing to deepen our relationship with customers in the Colorado Springs area.”

Southwest trying holiday flights to Texas from Colorado Springs

However, don’t expect Southwest to expand its flight schedule in Colorado Springs soon. Van Eaton said the carrier is focusing on building a mix of leisure and business travel on its local flights and doesn’t plan to add Houston or San Antonio, Texas, to its permanent schedule in the short term. That is despite encouraging results flying nonstop on a test basis to both cities from Colorado Springs during the holidays.

“It (adding the two cities) is probably not something that we would continue until we see more results and the market maturing,” Van Eaton said. “It typically takes about two years for a market to mature fully, for our brand to be known and customers have the opportunity to fly us and we can market our frequent-flyer program and credit card in the area.

“We are always evaluating service levels and if more customers fly out of Colorado Springs, that will support our ability to add flights.”

Colorado Springs Airport offering usual holiday parking deal…in June

Southwest doesn’t have either the aircraft or workers now to add flights to its network but the carrier is scheduled to receive 114 Boeing 737s later this year and plans to add up to 16,000 employees by year-end. Van Eaton said most of those additional planes and people are expected to be used to add additional flights at the carrier’s largest hubs, including Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Southwest’s biggest impact for consumers may have come by pushing fares lower. A study by ValuePenguin, a personal finance website owned by LendingTree, found fares at the Colorado Springs Airport fell 25.6% from an average of $407.95 in the fourth quarter of 2019 and to $303.63 in the second quarter of 2021. That is the seventh-largest decline among the nation’s 100 biggest airports, and it represents a cut in local fares from 9.3% above the national average to 1.2% above the average.