Flying to Denver is not cheap, especially for Wichitans traveling there on business.
Ever since low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines ended service between Wichita and Denver nearly five years ago, airport officials have watched fares steadily rise on United Airlines, the only remaining carrier offering direct flights there.
Now, fares total as much as $800 for Wichita passengers traveling on United to Denver and back during the work week – called “mid-week” fares and typically associated with someone traveling for business – even for flights booked more than 30 days in advance.
Because of that, some people are choosing other ways to get to Denver, either by flying out of Salina Regional Airport – where fares on direct flights to Denver are substantially cheaper – or on another airline that requires them to add at least one stop before getting to the Mile High City, airport officials said
In some cases, Wichita business people are forgoing flying altogether and driving instead, or using technology to conduct their face-to-face meetings.
The result? Fewer people are flying on United and traveling through Wichita Eisenhower National Airport.
10,456 The decline in the number of passengers flying on United and its regional carriers to and from Wichita Eisenhower National Airport between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2017.
An Eagle analysis of airline passenger traffic at Eisenhower Airport shows United had 10,456 fewer passengers – or a 4.6 percent decline – on all its flights to and from Wichita between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2017. United also operates nonstop flights to Chicago and Houston.
The analysis looked at total enplanements and deplanements at Eisenhower on flights operated by United and its regional carriers operating as United Express. Passenger data for specific routes is not available.
During that same period, the total number of passengers flying to and from Eisenhower Airport was flat, at 779,751.
A United spokesman said the airline is watching Wichita’s flights to Denver.
“We continuously monitor supply and demand in the markets we serve and determine competitive offerings that meet the needs of our customers,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in an statement e-mailed to The Eagle. “Customers planning travel well in advance can often find fares much lower than $800.”
Guerin did not directly respond to whether there was a correlation between fewer passengers flying United and its higher mid-week fares to Denver.
Rising fares to Denver was a topic of discussion at a recent Wichita Airport Advisory Board’s meeting.
Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager at Eisenhower Airport, told board members that she is working with United officials to see whether they could lower the fares.
She noted Wichitans traveling on United through Denver – which also is a hub airport for the airline – for another destination were getting competitive fares. And, she said, the airline has lowered fares for Wichita travelers who are flying to or from Denver on the weekend.
“That’s progress,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s those mid-week fares we’re continuing to work on.”
The Eagle looked at booking travel on a United flight from Wichita to Denver on two different periods: departing Monday, Aug. 21, and returning Friday, Aug. 25; and departing Monday, Sept. 25, and returning Friday, Sept. 29. In both instances, the round-trip fare was $806.40, even though the latter date was more than a month away.
When the first travel period’s return date was changed to Saturday, Aug. 26, the round-trip fare fell to $535.90. The fare also was dramatically lower when the departure day for the September trip was changed to Sunday, Sept. 24. That fare fell to $370.40, round trip.
But leaving for, or coming back from, a business trip on the weekend isn’t practical nor preferential for a lot of business people.
Neither are $800 airfares.
Wise said she has heard reports of people driving the 90 miles from Wichita to Salina to catch one of Great Lakes Airlines’ two, daily nonstop flights to Denver. The flights, which are subsidized through the federal government’s Essential Air Service program, tend to be far cheaper than fares from Wichita. Non-refundable round-trip fares on Great Lakes’ 30-seat Embraer turboprops start at $158 and go up to $300.
It’s not clear just exactly how many Wichitans are traveling to Salina to fly to Denver. Tim Rogers, Salina Airport Authority’s executive director, did not return calls for comment.
Great Lakes boarded 1,517 passengers in May for its Denver flights, marking the highest single month for passengers flying Great Lakes since it started service from Salina in mid-June 2016.
In its first 11 months in Salina, Great Lakes flew 13,121 passengers to and from Denver, according to a June news release from the Salina Airport Authority.
Drive instead of fly
When Frontier ended service in Wichita and fares started to rise, Architectural Innovations principal Brett Prather opted to use a car to visit the Wichita firm’s Colorado Springs office instead.
He and his staff had previously flown Frontier or United because there was competition on the route and fares on both airlines were cheaper. But when Frontier left – Prather said at one point he was staring at a $1,300 round-trip fare – traveling by car became the obvious option for him and his staff.
“Because of the sheer cost, that’s why we drive,” he said.
Even though Prather said he’s looking at a seven-hour drive, he figures the time it takes to check in at the airport, go through security, fly, get his bags and drive from Denver to Colorado Springs, he’s already spent 4 1/2 hours. That doesn’t include the expense of a rental car, he said.
IMA is an insurance broker and risk management firm with a 200-employee office in Wichita and headquarters in Denver. IMA officials said rising fares from Wichita to Denver were a factor in the company’s decision to pull back on corporate travel a few years ago.
“A couple of years ago we got pretty intentional about being efficient with our dollars,” said Kyle Orndorff, IMA Wichita market president. “We invested in a lot of technology in our office; we can do a lot of video conferencing … And we’ve used the heck out of those systems.”
Still, he said, the company does need to send people back and forth between the Wichita and Denver offices.
“Our two largest offices are Wichita and Denver, and by the very nature of that we’ve got a lot of corporate services,” he said. “There is a need for those people to be in different offices from time to time.”
Sometimes, IMA can’t avoid flying its employees to and from Denver and Wichita, he said.
But there are many instances that when travel is necessary, staff will make the drive between the two cities “because it’s just cost-prohibitive” to fly, Orndorff said.
“A one-hour flight that’s costing you $800, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “We have to be prudent. We’re not traveling as much as we would if that fare was half of (that).”
The high Denver fares also makes it hard for IMA’s Wichita office to host company-wide meetings, such as its quarterly strategic planning meetings that typically see a large contingent of people coming from the Denver office for two days. Those are meetings that require hotel stays, dining out and catering food.
That means money coming into the local economy.
When you have a big constituency coming from Denver, that’s where it gets tough to say let’s have the meeting in Wichita.
Kyle Orndorff, IMA Wichita market president
“When you have a big constituency coming from Denver, that’s where it gets tough to say let’s have the meeting in Wichita,” Orndorff said. “Those are the things that are frustrating as a business leader in Wichita that I don’t want our city to miss out on.”
For the airport’s part, Wise said she’s hopeful she can eventually convince United officials to lower the fares to Denver. She said she’s now making the case that the low-cost flights from Salina to Denver are having an impact on United’s business in Wichita.
“Airlines only lower fares when they compete with a low-fare carrier on a similar route,” she said. “We have shown United that there is low-fare competition in this market, and they continue to study the situation.”