With New Buildings, Tenants and Passengers, What’s Drawing Everyone to COS?

PHOTO: Annie Flodin

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Colorado Springs Airport (COS) is booming. The city-owned airport is the second-busiest in the state following Denver International, but in terms of growth, Colorado Springs is ahead by a longshot.

But that growth is certainly newfound, as is evident by the airport’s somewhat tumultuous past.

Colorado Springs Airport opened its first passenger terminal back in 1942 and opened a new terminal in 1966 which was later expanded. Throughout the 70s, 80s and even 90s, the airport made a valiant effort to expand service.

The airport was known for some rather unusual flights during this time too, including the world’s shortest DC-10 flight operated by United Airlines: Colorado Springs to Denver, a mere 70-mile 45-minute trip by plane.

In 1996, they experienced a peak number of passengers at nearly 5 million, at which time the airport served as a hub for Western Pacific Airlines (WestPac). The now-defunct airline moved their hub to Denver later that year and announced plans to purchase Frontier Airlines shortly thereafter.

That merger process was short-lived, however, after Frontier acquired financial information from WestPac that deterred them from wanting to enter into the codeshare agreement.

While the situation is said to have “nearly destroyed” Frontier, they survived and today fly to more destinations out of Colorado Springs than any other airline. WestPac didn’t fare as well and ceased operations in 1998.

But times are changing, and today Colorado Springs has experienced more success in attempts to expand service than ever before.

This year through June, roughly 29.5 million passengers came through Denver, an increase of 7.4 percent compared to the first half of 2016. And while Colorado Springs only saw about 730,000 passengers in the first half of 2017, that number represents an increase of 25 percent compared to the same timeframe last year – meaning Colorado Springs is growing roughly three times as quickly as Denver.

So, why the sudden spike?

The growth at Colorado Springs can be linked to many factors, not the least of which are Frontier Airlines recently announcing seven new nonstop flights, and several area businesses expanding due to lucrative tax incentives.

Earlier this summer, Frontier launched seasonal service out of Colorado Springs to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C. In the fall, they’ll launch seasonal service to Fort Myers and Tampa.

The airline first came to COS in 2012 hoping to build a new focus city, but they left in 2013 after they didn’t get the results they’d hoped for. They returned in 2016 with nonstop service to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Orlando.

Frontier isn’t the airport’s only low-cost carrier, however. The fairly young Allegiant Airlines – formed in 1997 – has operated out of COS since 2002 when they launched daily nonstop flights to Las Vegas. Over the past 20 years Allegiant’s destinations from COS have doubled… to two.

Allegiant first offered twice a week nonstop flights between Colorado Springs and Phoenix between 2010 and 2012 but discontinued them when Frontier entered the market. Roughly a year after Frontier left, Allegiant resumed those flights and they remain a key player at the airport today.

COS is Seeing Growth in More Ways Than One

Several new developments are also underway at the airport, due in large part to the implementation of the El Paso County Commercial Aeronautical Zone (CAZ), which offers significant tax breaks and incentives to companies that expand within the 1,825-acre zone at and around the airport – a huge advantage to aviation-related businesses.

Projects include three new hangars – one of which will be used to turn wide-body aircraft into “flying offices” for businesses – and a new executive terminal.

Even though many of these projects were spurred in part by the CAZ, Director of Aviation — Greg Phillips, says that all the airport tenants have benefitted from the incentives, regardless of whether the CAZ was what drew them there in the first place.

“It made it easier for them to build, even if they were local tenants that have wanted to build for years,” Phillips said.

And of all the tenants, it was likely the new 600,000-pound firefighter that drew the most attention to the airport when it made its home there in May 2016.

Firefighting 747 Now Calls COS Home

When it’s not out fighting fires, the world-famous Global SuperTanker – the nation’s largest firefighting plane – rests inside a hangar on the west side of Colorado Springs Airport. The Boeing 747-400 is the world’s youngest Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) and has nearly twice the capacity of the next-largest aerial tanker.

Jim Wheeler, Global SuperTanker President and CEO, says the company selected Colorado Springs after an exhaustive review of airports west of the Mississippi River.

What immediately stood out to them was the long runways – the airport has the nation’s fifth longest commercial runway at 13,501 feet, the high-pressure water hydrants, the airport’s Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group (A/DACG) which can be used in the event of a major fire and its proximity to major fire areas.

But what ultimately sealed the deal for Wheeler and his team was the business-minded attitude of the airport staff and the surrounding community.

“The staff at the airport bent over backwards to obtain our business and continues to do so to this day,” Wheeler said. “I have considerable experience working with airports, and will tell you this is one of the finest you will ever work with from any aspect,” he added.

The SuperTanker can be used for a wide range of missions from wildfires and marine fires to oil and chemical spills or even reforestation. This past year, the tanker performed major firefighting efforts in Israel and Chile, but oddly enough, until recently the plane wasn’t even allowed to fight fires in the very city in which it’s headquartered.

In early August, the city of Colorado Springs signed a “call when needed” contract with Global SuperTanker, meaning if commanders at the city’s fire department deem it necessary, they’d request the SuperTanker, only paying when the aircraft is used.

In July, the tanker received long-awaited federal approval to fight wildfires in the U.S., but contracts currently limit it to the state of California, Colorado’s Douglas County and the city of Colorado Springs.

PHOTO: Global SuperTanker Team.

Sierra Completions Takes Business to New Heights

Sierra Completions, a subsidiary of Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. is planning a $100 million project at the airport to construct a 90,000-square foot hangar that will be used to transform wide-body aircraft into flying offices for high-end customers.

The hangar will be one of very few facilities capable of modifying planes like the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 747 and 787. “There’s still a market for long-range, wide-body business jets to have these types of modifications and retrofits,” Phillips said.

And with the company doing so much military work – they contract with the United States Armed Forces in addition to NASA and private spaceflight companies – Phillips says they’re capable of modifying planes in ways that other outfitters and retrofitters simply can’t.

As of now, Sierra Completions has every intention of moving forward with up to 55 acres of development. The project is expected to create roughly 2,100 jobs over the course of five years – a huge economic boost for the community.

Cutter Aviation Celebrates Opening of New FBO Terminal

In early August, Cutter Aviation celebrated the opening of its new Fixed Base Operator (FBO) terminal at Colorado Springs Airport. The mountain retreat-themed terminal and a new state-of-the-art 62,000-gallon fuel farm sit on eight acres at the airport.

In 2015, Cutter purchased a 23,000-square foot hangar, which is adjacent to the new terminal, and work is currently underway on a new 60,000-square foot hangar. Since they arrived in 2006, Cutter Aviation’s presence at the airport has more than doubled.

$7.7 million in Grants Will Improve Taxiways

New terminals and hangars aren’t the only infrastructure-related projects in the works – federal grant money will help improve aging taxiways on airport grounds.

In July of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that the airport would receive a $7.7 million federal grant to repave two taxiways that were built in the early nineties.

Construction is expected to begin mid-September and is expected to be completed within four months. The grant was one of many awarded recently by the FAA to several U.S. airports.

What About Denver? The Symbiotic DEN-COS Relationship

All the growth in Colorado Springs begs the question, “What about Denver?” The truth is, Colorado Springs isn’t really competing with Denver and they don’t necessarily have plans to. COS is more interested in picking up Denver’s overflow traffic so that together the airports can increase tourism in and around both cities.

Phillips says that in many ways, Denver is sort of like the Walmart of airports – they have more robust schedules and a lot more flights… they’re there to fit everyone. But with that one-size-fits-all approach comes longer lines, further parking and an all-around more stressful airport experience.

“We have a leg up… because it’s still easier to get into and out of Colorado Springs, and it’s faster to get into and out of Colorado Springs than it is Denver,” Phillips said. “We have convenience, so if what you’re doing is connecting, and you can find fares that are close enough, it makes more sense to fly out of Colorado Springs,” he added. “We sell a different product than they sell.”

Another factor working in Colorado Springs’ favor is the downward price pressure that having a low-cost carrier like Frontier puts on other carriers, which in turn has helped the airport’s prices to go down overall.

“In the fourth quarter of 2016, our prices went down 11.7 percent, and that was one of the greatest reductions in the country,” Phillips said. And if passengers have any complaints at all about COS, it’s that they don’t offer enough destinations and fares are too high, but those are two things the airport is keenly aware of and constantly working to improve.

All Signs Point to a Future of Blue Skies and Tailwinds for COS

“It’s just fantastic,” Phillips said when asked how it’s felt to witness the airport’s growth, adding that it shows the confidence that air carriers – in this case, Frontier – have put on the market. “They didn’t add one flight, they didn’t add two flights, they’ve added five flights with mainline aircraft,” he added.

The other thing he says has contributed to the airport’s success, is the way in which the community has responded, namely just by filling the airplanes. “I think it’s a win-win all around,” he said. And in terms of passenger feedback, Phillips says they choose COS primarily due to its convenience and the fact that it’s low-stress when compared to the typical airport experience.

“If we’re doing our job, we’ve got to be thinking about how to make flying less stressful, and how to bring the fun back into it so that it overrides that stress,” Phillips said. “It’s not easy, but those are the things we have to be thinking about.”

If you haven’t been to Colorado Springs Airport, the best way to describe it is a perfect mix of a large, hub airport – think LAX or JFK – and your typical small, general aviation airport with lots of planes and people who fly just to fly.

With the continued infrastructure developments and the addition of new flights, it’s easy to see why airlines, aviation companies and – perhaps most importantly – passengers are drawn here. And it seems Phillips feels the same way.

“Why shouldn’t Colorado Springs – with as much military and as much aviation as is here already – why shouldn’t we be a center of aviation and aerospace development?”

PHOTO: Annie Flodin.