There are a lot of things about air travel to complain about---often justifiably. Still, catching a flight out of Denver is fairly easy. But if you live in a place like Alamosa, Pueblo or scores of smaller communities in Colorado or the rest of the country, travelers are wise to have a ‘Plan B.’
Because Denver is one of the nation’s busiest airports, local travelers have the luxury of choice. If one airline’s schedule doesn’t meet your needs, another probably will. Not so, if you’re flying from what the Department of Transportation refers to as an ‘underserved’ airport. Alamosa and Pueblo are underserved.
They rely on Essential Air Service, a government program that ensures they have air travel. The program subsidizes smaller carriers and allows them to serve small town America.
“It’s a political compromise,” says Metropolitan State University-Denver’s James Simmons. The MSUD professor explains how the program grew out of airline deregulation. Simmons, who teaches Aviation and Aerospace Science, says the program guarantees carriers “a reasonable rate of return.” But the service comes at a cost in time, money and, for many, frustration.
Living in a smaller town has its trade-offs, says Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks who has lived in one most of her life. One big trade-off is catching a flight. “For economic development and for employers, essential air (service) is critical.” Brooks is part of a core group of local executives in Alamosa whose job requires travel. And while “95 percent” of her trips are in-state, sometimes air travel is unavoidable. But flying out of Alamosa can be a challenge, especially in winter.
The Alamosa-Denver jaunt is a bumpy fifty minute hop over the country’s highest mountains. But, driving, even in ideal weather, is easily a four-plus hour trip. Toss in the elements -ice, snow and metropolitan rush hours-and it becomes an ordeal.
Things are easier flying out of Pueblo’s Memorial Airport. The Pueblo-Denver air commute is about half an hour. But there have been times in the recent past when the airport didn’t have an airline. Contracts were voided or just not renewed. The same with Alamosa. Both communities recently endured a carrier drought when Great Lakes Airlines pulled service. In 2015, Great Lakes canceled 16 percent of Alamosa’s flights.
Regional carriers across the country are plagued with pilot shortages. There are always openings. Long hours and low pay are just two reasons. Toss in other variables, including weather, and it’s easy to understand why carriers sometimes bail out. Cheyenne-based Boutique Airlines now serves each airport. But those airlines keeping small town America connected are also rewarded for their efforts.
Alamosa’s air service is underwritten by a $2.5 million dollar federal subsidy. Pueblo receives $1.7 million. But some critics would like to ground these grants. They say they’re pork that only subsidize carriers and that passengers get stuck with the bill, an average, says one study, of $74 per ticket.
“It does add to the price of a ticket,” concedes Ian Turner, Pueblo’s newly appointed Director of Aviation. But, seen another way, it’s the cost of convenience. Pueblo travelers save the 45-minute drive to Colorado Springs and nearly hour and 45 minutes to Denver. “You save time and here, there’s free parking.”
Pueblo’s airport is not only a regional asset for local flyers. It is also a long time partner with the military and contracts with it to allow nearly daily touchdowns for prospective Air Force Academy pilots. The military also uses the airport for pilots training on the C130 and C17 aircraft.
Commercial, military and private use add up to more than 180,000 touchdowns and takeoffs each year. “We’re quite busy,” says Ian Turner, newly appointed Director of Aviation in Pueblo. “We’re a pretty open airport. There’s not a lot of air space traffic that conflicts with operations.” He also points out that Pueblo is “the only airport in Colorado that can handle the DC10 tanker” that’s used in fighting forest fires.
Turner sees opportunities abounding at his new job site. He thinks it can blossom even more with some basic infrastructure improvements, including work on the runways and water system that needs replacing. “I’d like to see new development, new businesses. We do have the space,” he says. “It would be a dream to have an aircraft manufacturer make Pueblo home or to see corporate hangars.”
But a more immediate challenge is getting passenger service renewed. Turner says the airport’s essential air service expires on May 31st.