01 August 2010

The Short but Colorful Life of Western Pacific Airlines

Western Pacific Airlines was founded at under-utilized Colorado Springs Municipal Airport by a team led by one of the founders of America West Airlines, Ed Beauvais. His airline background stretched back all the way to Bonanza Airlines before its merger into Air West and ultimately led to him serving as head of America West until 1992. Western Pacific commenced operations out of Colorado Springs in April 1995 using eight 737-300s with flights to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City. With the new trouble-ridden Denver International Airport 40 miles from the Denver city center to the northeast, residents living in the southern areas of the Denver metropolitan area quickly found the short one hour drive to Colorado Springs to catch a WestPac flight more convenient.

While Western Pacific did have a simple red/blue billboard livery, it was their "LogoJet" program that made the airline well-known amongst travellers and enthusiasts. For the first time, the entire exterior of an airliner was put up for rent as a flying billboard. The first customer to sign up for what WestPac called the "AirLogo Program" was the five-star Colorado Springs hotel, the Broadmoor, which was incidentally owned by one of the major investors in WestPac. But the most famous and most-photographed of the LogoJets was the Simpsons Jet. In May 1995 FOX Television needed an advertising coup for that month's Nielsen ratings sweeps for their long-running animated sitcom, The Simpsons. After a meeting with WestPac's marketing staff, FOX paid the airline $1 million to wear a scheme designed by FOX's ad department to bring attention to the TV show during the sweeps week and beyond.

As more 737-300s became available, more destinations were added to the WestPac network and the LogoJets made up a significant portion of the fleet, with customers ranging from the City of Colorado Springs and insurance companies to ski resorts and casinos. At its peak, WestPac was operating 18 737-300s out of Colorado Springs. The dramatic jump in passenger numbers brought increased attention to Colorado Springs which in 1994 had just completed a modern terminal facility to replace the dated and inadequate terminal building on the west side of the field near the FBO hangars. In no time the established majors were attracted back to the airport, much in the same way that Southwest brought traffic from other airlines back to Houston Hobby and how both Southwest and Midway revitalized Chicago Midway Airport.

The honeymoon ended after 18 months and at the end of 1996 investors who were impatient for profits ousted the management team including Ed Beauvais and a new team led by Robert Peiser moved in to reorganize the airline. The management shakeup revealed WestPac's financial health was worse than most in the industry realized. While Beauvais remained on the board of directors of WestPac, Peiser took the airline in a different direction in an effort to attract the business (thus higher revenue) passenger rather than the flocks of leisure travellers who were driving south from Denver to fly to vacation destinations in the WestPac network. One of his first moves was to scrap the LogoJet program and secondly, he moved WestPac to Denver International in an effort to attract more passengers. Some would later say that Peiser already had bankruptcy reorganization in mind and moved the airline to Denver to secure more attractive post-bankruptcy financing. After an abortive codeshare and proposed merger with Frontier Airlines, WestPac ceased operations and was eventually liquidated in February 1998.

WestPac's failure, wasn't just due to the move to Denver. The majors at Denver noticed WestPac's growing operation at Colorado Springs and lowered their fares. This, in combination with service improvements at Denver International, slowly eroded WestPac's advantages at Colorado Springs and made a move to Denver almost a necessity. Also, the Valujet crash in 1996 adversely affected customer perceptions of low-fare airlines. In the eight months preceding the shutdown, airline management made frantic moves to shift the airline from its original low-fare focus to business travel which would only deepen the debts- moving the hub to Denver, unveiling a new corporate logo and livery, converting to SABRE for reservations, and dropping several leisure markets. The merger of Frontier figured heavily in the survival plans for the airline, but wisely so as the more financially healthy airline, Frontier not only called off the merger, but also the codeshare as well. Western Pacific's demise couldn't have been prevented by staying at Colorado Springs as many former employees and city residents still believe- it was a simple case of declining yields in the face of stiff competition from the majors at Denver. And that would have been the case whether or not the airline was still at Colorado Springs or at it's final resting place at DEN.

In the end though, it's going to be the LogoJet program that will be Western Pacific's legacy to the airline industry as airlines all over the world have picked up on the idea (such as Ireland's Ryanair, for example). And of all the LogoJets, be they Western Pacific's or anyone elses to this day, the Simpsons Jet will always be the most famous.

Source: Boeing 737 (Crowood Aviation Series) by Malcom L. Hill. Crowood Press Ltd, 2002.

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