Denverites Go South Seeking Cheap Seats

Colorado Springs offers low air fares

BUSINESS is booming here - and Denver is one reason why.

The capital city's expensive new airport is driving many customers south to this hub at the foot of snow-gauzed Pikes Peak. Local leaders also give credit to United Airlines - a carrier that doesn't even fly into Colorado Springs.

United controls roughly 70 percent of the traffic into Denver International Airport. With that kind of monopoly, plus the rise in ticket prices in and out of Denver, people are discovering the discount fares of many small airlines here.

The war over commerce is one being repeated in many urban areas across the country, where smaller satellite cities are trying to pick off airline customers from their big-city rivals. But the tensions have been exacerbated here because of the cost and controversy surrounding the new tepee-topped Denver International Airport (DIA).

''Business down here has really boomed since the airport opened in 1994,'' says John Garland of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. ''People heading to Denver, the ski areas, even Wyoming are flying through here, and a lot of times they'll shop or spend the night before they drive to their final destination.''

Take Michelle Dunlap, who flew to Colorado from Houston on Western Pacific Airlines. ''I saved $200 flying into the Springs and then I just drove to Aspen. The extra hour in the car was worth it. I also didn't want my luggage destroyed.''

She is referring to Denver International's much-maligned automated baggage system. The $193-million system, designed to speed baggage from planes to waiting passengers, is the primary reason DIA didn't open on time last year. The system is still not functioning properly. During the Christmas rush, hundreds of suitcases were ripped open or destroyed by the high-tech machinery.

Colorado Springs has also benefited from DIA's distance from Denver. Denver's previous facility, Stapleton, was a short drive from downtown. But DIA is another 17 miles to the east. For people living in the southern reaches of Denver, a 70-mile drive to Colorado Springs is often as easy.

But the overriding advantage held by Colorado Springs is its comparatively cheap gate fees. This means airlines flying into the Springs save in ticket costs - and the savings can be substantial: Western Pacific, for instance, charges on average $250 less than United out of Denver on a Colorado-Newark round-trip ticket.

''People are saving hundreds of dollars simply by going south and avoiding the hassles of DIA,'' says Braun Mincher, who runs an airport shuttle business out of Fort Collins.

Mr. Mincher's company, Airport Express, has reaped some of the benefits. Five months ago he started running vans from Denver to Colorado Springs airport. Today he is running full-size buses. ''We are amazed at the ridership,'' he says. ''It's 75 percent over what we projected it would be.''

He's not alone. Two other companies now offer Denver to Colorado Springs Airport shuttles. And next month, those companies will add Boulder and Fort Collins to the route.

It helps that the Colorado Front Range is going through a building boom. Housing construction in the Springs is at near record levels, and a new airport helps to lure major companies to the area. Colorado Springs also remains a less expensive place to live than Denver, Boulder, or Fort Collins.

But the airport can only do so much, and it is approaching its limits. The facility is tiny compared with big-city airports. Officials here are pressuring the city council to approve the construction of a second concourse at a cost of $79 million. In other words, in Colorado's great commerce war, stay tuned.

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