DENVER -- Continental Airlines yesterday made good on earlier warnings that it was closing its Denver crew base, all but confirming the end of Denver as the airline's second hub and darkening prospects for traffic at the new and problem-plagued Denver International Airport.
In a recorded message Wednesday to employees, Continental president Bob Ferguson said the shutdown would occur by Nov. 1. The airline has 3,000 employees remaining in Denver, about half of them flight crew members.
Continental, the second biggest user of Denver's Stapleton International Airport, said in May that some and possibly all of the flight crew base would be moved to Newark, Cleveland, and Greensboro, S.C. Stapleton will be closed when Denver International opens.
Continental spokesman David Messing yesterday confirmed the shutdown of the crew base but said he could not project the number of jobs that might be lost in Denver.
Messing said that Denver International would still be a Continental hub. "As long as you are providing service and connecting flights, it's still a hub. It's 60 flights," Messing said. The question of whether Denver would or would not be a hub amounted to "a semantic distinction," he said.
Over the past year Continental cut back from from 270 daily departures out of Denver to 59. The airline says it lost $150 million in Denver last year.
Continental could be down to 35 from 40 flights and 900 employees in Denver by yearend, predicted Mike Boyd, president of Aviation Systems Research Inc. of Golden, Colo.
Denver International Airport is not open yet and city officials don't know when it will be. Once opened, however, the $4 billion airport is expected to have at least double the cost per enplaned passenger of other U.S. airports, based on figures provided by the city.
For Continental, this will mean an extra $50 million in operating costs, Boyd said. That is why Continental is pulling back, he said.
"Another $50 million a year would kill Continental," Boyd said, "Anybody who tells you that it isn't DIA doesn't know what they are talking about or is a city official."
Messing disagreed. "That's just not the case," he said. "We lost $50 million in Denver [using Stapleton] over the last three years, and that's why we're leaving."
Denver aviation director Jim DeLong could not be reached for comment, but he has been quoted as saying that overall traffic in Denver is up 3% through May. DeLong is hopeful that United and other airlines such as Mark Air can pick up the passenger slack left by Continental. Mark Air has 17 flights a day in Denver.
But Boyd said Mark Air is itself struggling. And he argued that costly airports are outmoded when airlines must cope with discount pricing. He said that by avoiding Denver, American Airlines could offer a coast-to-coast flight for $25 to $35 less than United.
"It's time to get some reality into this picture," Boyd said. "This airport doesn't work. We built an airport that's not within the context of the industry that's going to use it."
United Airlines is the dominant airline in Denver, using the city as its second-largest hub after Chicago Boyd said Denver should be wary that United president Stephen Wolf will leave if a current employee-led buyout succeeds.
"If Stephen Wolf wore lapel pins from all the airlines he's been with since 1979, he'd attract lightning. He's a deal maker, and he'll soon be gone." Boyd said.