PUEBLO, Colo. – Air travel has come roaring back since the pandemic but not necessarily through the same airports people were flying pre-pandemic.
The Regional Airline Association says smaller airports in the U.S. lost 34% of their flight traffic since pre-COVID. In this special Denver7 360 report, we'll look at the dynamic, shifting state of commercial airports in Colorado.
Some are going gangbusters. Some have become casualties of the changing air travel landscape – including Pueblo, Colorado.
Pueblo Memorial Airport was busy during our Monday afternoon visit. However, none of the people there were traveling that day.
They were all there to eat at Pete's In and Out, which is located inside the airport and apparently serves the best burger in town.
Lunchtime is always busy at Pete's. The rest of the airport is a different story.
Pueblo is an easy target. A down-on-its-luck, once-thriving steel mill town that is among the poorest in the state. So when news broke last year that its small airport was losing its only commercial carrier, the public response was, largely, a shrug.
"We usually just drive to Colorado Springs or Denver and fly out of there," said Pueblo resident Emma Fisher.
Pueblo was among 29 small airports recently dropped by United Airlines contractor Skywest. Before that, and before COVID infected the airline industry, Skywest was flying 24 weekly round trips from Pueblo to Denver in 50-seat regional jets, which the airport says were 80% full on average.
But over the past three years, the number of Skywest flights dwindled to an unreliable trickle.
When asked if he ever flies out of his hometown airport, Pueblo resident Mike Hartcop said: "The connections are so obscure. You get stuck in Denver sometimes overnight and it's not worth it."
Elmer Villalong, a frequent flier and fellow Puebloan, said he flies out of Denver and rarely Pueblo.
"I have in the past but there were concerns of when the plane left and when it would return," he said.
On January 14, Skywest flew its last flight out of PUB, the airport code for Pueblo Memorial.
"Well, it's been a frustrating last few years," says PUB Director of Aviation Greg Pedroza.
But Pedroza isn't down about the state of his airport. He's downright bullish.
"Here in Pueblo, we're excited that we're starting with a new airline," he said.
The day after Skywest flew its last flight out of Pueblo, commuter airline Southern Airways Express flew its first. Pedroza said that this airline is a good first step for the longevity of the airport.
Southern Airways will fly 24 flights to Denver each week on nine-passenger propeller planes. Pedroza said it's important to give those who live in Pueblo the option to fly local and not deal with potential complications of I-25 traffic to Colorado Springs or to Denver.
Here's the rest of Pedroza's sales pitch:
Southern Airways charges $49 for the 45-minute flight to Denver. The Pueblo airport has free parking. And this next point – especially if you ever fly out of Denver International Airport – is strong: The only planes now flying out of Pueblo carry nine passengers, so there can never be more than eight people in front of you in the TSA security line.
Regional jets just aren't in the cards for small airports these days. Jets are expensive to operate. Jet fuel prices have tripled over the past three years. Regional jets hold an average of 76 passengers and use 30 percent more fuel per passenger than larger jets, which carry an average of 159 passengers. Flying bigger jets into bigger airports means bigger profits.
Southern Airways only started flying out of Pueblo in mid-January, so it's too early to tell if the small-prop-planes-to-Denver model will keep PUB afloat.
Airline industry expert Steve Cowell said he doesn't think it will.
"There's just too few people and Colorado Springs is just too close," he said. Cowell believes Pueblo's days as a commercial airport are just about over.
As Cowell argues, the Colorado Springs Airport, COS, is only a 45-minute drive north from Pueblo. And the airport is booming. It has four airlines – American, Delta, United and Southwest – flying to nine nonstop cities daily.
Sun Country airline will begin flights to Minneapolis/St. Paul in June. Between 2,500 and 3,500 people fly out of Colorado Springs daily. In December 2022, 80,485 passengers enplaned there, a 27% increase over December 2019.
"We saw over a million enplanements which ended the year with our highest level of enplanements since 2000,” said Dana Schield, Senior Public Communications Specialist with the Colorado Springs Airport.
Colorado Springs is among the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and, by some estimates, its population is expected to surpass Denver's by 2050. COS is drawing up a 20-year plan now to address that growth.
"Colorado Springs airport had a strong 2022 and 2023 is on track to be as strong if not stronger," Schield said.
Remember how we said U.S. airlines are slashing service to smaller airports like Pueblo? The exception to that rule is also here in Colorado, in the mountain town airports. While final numbers for 2022 are still being scratched together, Aspen, Durango, Eagle County, Gunnison, Hayden and Montrose appeared on-pace to be near or set passenger records for last year.
Cowell agrees the future is bright for these airports.
Now to the curious case of Northern Colorado Regional airport in Loveland, FNL. It is furiously trying to build a new $20 million, 19,000-square-foot terminal. The airport received nearly $17 million in federal COVID relief grants for it. It’s chipping in a couple million dollars and the cities of Loveland and Ft. Collins, which co-own the airport, will pony up a million each.
Here's the curious part: All that money is to build a new terminal at an airport that has no commercial air service. Its last airline pulled out last year. FNL has a bus to Denver International. That's it. But airport leaders insist that if they get a new, bigger terminal, the airlines will come.
Cowell concedes the population can support it. But whether the flying public chooses to fly out of Loveland, a 50-minute drive to DIA, remains to be seen.
In our special 360 report on Colorado's commercial airports, perhaps we should at least mention DIA. It's the third busiest airport in the United States and sixth busiest in the world, with more than 69 million passengers coming through each year. It provides 215 nonstop destinations to 190 domestic airports and 13 countries. And it's the largest hub for Frontier, Southwest and United.
DIA projects it will be serving 100 million passengers a year in just seven years.
"I think Denver International is going to continue to be one of the leading airports in the country and in the world in terms of passenger travel," Cowell added.
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