It's 4:35 a.m. on Friday, and dawn is hours away. But the Premier Lounge, which debuted in October in a move to attract more business travelers, has just opened its doors at the Colorado Springs Airport. Coffee is brewed and snacks are available.
Within minutes, airline passengers filter in to await flights to Houston, Atlanta, Denver and Dallas, all of which will depart within the next two hours. Flights to Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Phoenix are scheduled to take off later in the morning.
Bob Smith, of Huntsville, Alabama, is heading home, via Atlanta, from a business trip, a trek he makes to and from here about once a month. Smith says he likes the lounge but he'd probably fly into this airport regardless, because it's more convenient than Denver International Airport.
Another traveler, Joseph Mayala, is starting his trip back to Nairobi after one of his twice-a-year visits here to do business for his nonprofit. "I like the environment," he says of the lounge, which offers a quiet atmosphere, meal service and a small conference room for privacy or group meetings. "It's good customer service."
The 1,800-square-foot lounge is one of a few new amenities designed to raise the airport's profile among business travelers and increase passenger traffic — which in turn should bring more flights to Colorado Springs, says airport director Dan Gallagher.
The airport has been trying to claw its way back toward pre-recession numbers. In 2007, it saw 1.1 million passengers; last year, it was 622,982.
While it might sound like a frill, the lounge actually was suggested by the airlines as a way to put more higher-fare flyers in their seats, Gallagher says. Since the airlines have to pay a per-square-foot charge to operate the airport, he says, every inch of space should be revenue-producing.
The airlines — Delta, American, Alaska, Allegiant and United — told Gallagher and other city officials they were seeing a lot of business travelers. And that's good, because they pay higher fares than vacationing families.
"They said, 'You've got a lot of folks who are frequent fliers,'" Gallagher says. "Tens of thousands are in airline clubs. What that tells the airline is, we have a strong business base. But they also said, 'You're not doing anything to draw business travelers.'"
The area next to Gate 6 used to be an art gallery. As a lounge, it has attracted 275 members — at $279 a year — and is gaining a couple every week, he says. (That's in addition to many, like Smith and Mayala, who gain access by virtue of their memberships in airline frequent-flyer clubs.) Plus, Freedom Financial Services is sponsoring the lounge in a three-year deal, adding to the revenue.
The airport hopes to generate $120,000 this year from the lounge, Gallagher says, which could chip away at the cost per passenger of running the airport, the benchmark used to measure the airport against others.
In 2013, the cost was $9 per passenger. Through various efforts, it's declined to $7.42 today, Gallagher says. DIA is about $12 to $14 per passenger, he says.
A few years ago, airlines paid about $8 million a year toward the airport's $16 million budget; today it's $4 million, he says, with the balance coming from sources like car rentals, parking and concessions.
Cost-cutting steps included refinancing the airport's debt; cutting airport payroll, which went from 122 positions in 2013 to 90 this year; and creating an airport enterprise zone on the outskirts of the airport's 7,000 acres last summer. There, businesses can operate without paying city sales and use taxes on aeronautical parts. Already two businesses — Trine Aerospace & Defense and Rampart Aviation — have moved in and another will be named soon; rents from those properties go into the kitty to reduce airlines' costs, he says. In addition, the Transportation Safety Administration and Kinder Morgan have moved into the former Western Pacific terminal on the airport's east side.
Early signs are encouraging. United Airlines added 5,000 first-class seats for 2015, starting in January, Gallagher says, and also added a larger aircraft. Moreover, marketing has brought increased passengers per flight from Seattle, Chicago and Houston.
"This is about putting more people in the plane," Gallagher says. "It's about getting a higher paying fare on the plane ... that's what's going to bring more air service back."
Gallagher emphasizes that the lounge, which cost the airlines $191,000 for remodeling, isn't the final answer. "We've gotta do a helluva lot more," he says. "It's an all-of-the-above strategy."
For Greg Showman, who was headed home to Melbourne, Florida, via Atlanta Friday morning from a business trip here, the lounge is practical. "It's better than paying $2 outside for coffee," he says.
Teresa Maki, who waited with her husband for their flight to Atlanta, en route to Fort Lauderdale, says the lounge provides a respite from crowds. The Pueblo couple travels frequently for business and pleasure and has used the lounge five or six times since it opened.
She does have a suggestion, however. "The only thing they don't have," she says, "is a bathroom."