For the first time since popular discount carrier Southwest Airlines launched service last year in Colorado Springs, passenger traffic has fallen at the city’s airport.
But don’t blame Southwest.
Enplanements – the number of travelers boarding planes at the Colorado Springs Airport to fly elsewhere – totaled 95,713 in June, a 3.8% decline when compared with the same month last year, according to an airport traffic report.
Of June’s total, Dallas-based Southwest, which in March 2021 launched 13 daily nonstop flights from the Springs to five cities, accounted for 48,095 enplanements – 27% higher on a year-over-year basis.
Since Southwest joined American, Delta, Frontier and United at the airport last year, year-over-year enplanements had risen every month.
That changed in June, however. American, Delta, Frontier and United combined for 47,618 enplanements, a 22.7% drop from the same month last year and enough to pull down June’s overall boardings.
Greg Phillips, the city’s aviation director, said weather-related issues and airline crew shortages affecting the airline industry probably led to flight cancellations and contributed to the decline in enplanements last month.
Though the Colorado Springs Airport hasn’t necessarily experienced the same degree of problems as larger airports, it has seen its share, he said.
If there’s a weather problem somewhere in the country and a flight is canceled, a pilot and crew might wind up stuck in one city for several days until they’re back in position to resume flying, Phillips said.
“It’s a Rubik cube for the (airline) network planning to try to get all the squares in the right place at the right time,” Phillips said. “And they’re all moving at the same time.”
Meanwhile, the airlines don’t necessarily have enough backups to step in as replacements when pilots and crew members are out of position, he said.
“If you don’t have the pilot, and the flight was supposed to come from Chicago to Colorado Springs to pick people up, and the pilot never showed up in Chicago, then that’s why it didn’t make it from Chicago to Colorado Springs , “Phillips said. “The ripple (effect) there is, it’s not making it out of Colorado Springs.”
At the same time, pricier airfares – driven higher by soaring fuel costs – likely impacted the plans of some would-be flyers and forced them to stay home or find another way to travel.
“Airfares are high right now,” Phillips said. “Fuel prices are higher, not just for cars, but for aircraft as well. So that affects the fares that we see and that affects people’s determination on whether or not they’re going to travel.”
Airport officials are prepared for another decline in enplanements in July, Phillips said. Even so, he said he remains optimistic about travel from the Colorado Springs Airport.
For the first half of 2022, enplanements totaled 504,598, a 39.1% jump over the same period in 2021, the airport’s traffic report showed. This year’s first-half enplanement figure was the most for any similar period since 2001, Phillips said.
Also, the five airlines’ load factor in June – the percentage of available seats filled by passengers – rose to 81.7% in June from 77.8% during the same month last year. Year to date, the load factor increased to 76.9% from 65.6% during the first half of last year.
In June 2021, the airport “basically had a lot of planes, but they weren’t quite so full,” Phillips said. “Now we have slightly fewer planes overall, but they’re more full. And that’s important to airlines. That’s important to us.”
Southwest’s load factor of 79.8% in June was up from 72.1% during the same month last year; that 7.7 percentage point increase was the largest for any of the airlines serving Colorado Springs, Phillips said.
That’s key, he said, because it sends a signal that the community supports Southwest, which airport officials hope leads to more service by the carrier and other airlines.
“What that says is the community has absolutely embraced Southwest … and that they’re utilizing the service,” Phillips said of Southwest’s passenger counts and load factor. “That just serves us well when we go back to Southwest and talk about more potential growth.”