Soar spot becoming less of a sore spot; airport fares dropping

A United Airlines jet soars in front of Mount Garfield as it takes off on a recent trip from Grand Junction to Denver.

Airline passengers using Grand Junction Regional Airport have seen cheaper tickets for domestic flights over the past several months.

While that is good news for the airport and its travelers, what might be even better news is that the recent decreases come at a time when Denver International Airport — which grabs about 45 percent of passengers within the Grand Junction airport's region — is seeing some modest increases in its fares. Nationally, fares are generally flat.

"This is highly unusual," Grand Junction Regional Airport Executive Director Angela Padalecki said.

In Grand Junction, airport fares decreased for the third consecutive quarter compared to the same quarter of the previous year. Fares are typically compared that way instead of quarter versus quarter, according to Padalecki, because rates often fluctuate between peak travel season and the offseason.

With the decrease, the gap between fares in Denver and Grand Junction is narrowing. In the second quarter of 2018 it cost $100 more to fly out of Grand Junction than Denver on average. By the fourth quarter, that gap was down to $81. Padalecki hopes that if this trend keeps up, it will be easier to retain passengers in this region.

The fare decreases likely can be attributed to more capacity, more flights and more passengers, according to Padalecki. The staff at the Grand Junction airport is also working closely with the airlines servicing the area to optimize prices, sharing data on who is flying where and who is leaving the area to catch a flight.

"It's a lot of work to figure this out," Padalecki said. "The airlines don't do that for markets like ours, but we can do that and bring it to them to help them form decisions."

The practice of passengers who reside in the region but travel to places such as Denver or Salt Lake City to fly is referred to as "leakage" in the airline industry. The Grand Junction Regional Airport sees about 60 percent of passengers within its catchment area fly out of other airports. A catchment area is typically within a 2.5-hour drive of the airport.

Padalecki noted, however, that the airport retains about 75 percent of passengers who hail from Mesa County.

She also said this information is particularly of interest to the airlines that serve the Grand Junction airport — United, American, SkyWest and Allegiant — as passengers who leak out often fly other airlines.

"It's a shared problem and opportunity," she said.

The airport has added two nonstop destinations in the past several months, including an Allegiant flight to Mesa, Arizona, in April and a seasonal United flight to Chicago that begins later this month and goes through most of October.

With the seasonal Allegiant flight to Los Angeles coming back online in June, the airport will have eight nonstop destinations for the first time, Padalecki said.

"We think what is best for the community is having options in destinations and options when it comes to carriers," she said.

The Chicago flight also comes at a time when Visit Grand Junction is marketing the Grand Valley heavily to the city in conjunction with the Colorado Tourism Office.

According to Visit Grand Junction Director Elizabeth Fogarty, the nonstop flight is a great way to bring visitors in from the area to see Grand Junction.

In marketing the Grand Valley to Chicago, Visit Grand Junction's website has seen a 700 percent increase in hits from the Chicago area.

"What we do is create a reason for people to visit," she said, noting that the direct flight and cheaper fares further the incentive.

International fares have also decreased in recent years. The average fare for international flights was $427 each way in 2018. In 2009, the average was $451, but it peaked at $592 in 2012.

The five most common destinations internationally are Los Cabos, Cancun and Guadalajara in Mexico and Vancouver and Calgary in Canada. Four of the five destinations have average fares of less than $300 each way.

Even average fares to Denver have dropped of late, averaging $169 each way in 2018.

Passengers often complain about the appearance of high fares between Grand Junction and Denver.

Padalecki said there could be multiple reasons. One is that United Airlines has no real competition for the flight outside of the Denver Air Connection, a charter flight that goes to Centennial Airport just south of Denver. But she also feels that passengers tend to book flights to Denver later because it's a close destination. Flights booked within 30 days of a trip always cost more than those booked further out, she said.

"Just because it's in our backyard, doesn't mean you shouldn't book in advance," she said.

Padalecki expects fares to improve in 2019 as the airport is expected to surpass 1,000 passengers per day each way this year. Reducing fares remains a high priority for the airport, she said.

"From an air service development perspective, our focus and our priorities are improving air service access and affordability," Padalecki said. "We feel thrilled."

Recommended for you