- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

DENVER Airports across the nation are bracing for the hit from United Airlines' looming bankruptcy filing, but nowhere is the blow likely to land as hard as in Colorado.
United Airlines, with its parent company, UAL Corp., dominates the Denver skies like no other. Sixty-four percent of the airport's passenger traffic comes from United and its United Express regional carriers.
With the 7-year-old airport still paying off a $3.8 billion senior debt load, last week's rejected loan guarantee for United could put the distinctive white-peaked, tented airport in some mile-high financial trouble.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, says United is "critical" to the state's economy but he is confident the airline will weather its financial crisis.
"I obviously believe United will keep flying," Mr. Owens told the Rocky Mountain News. "It will keep flying; it will keep employing thousands of Coloradans."
Still, with the state reeling from the economic effects of the summer's wildfires, the drought and the telecommunications collapse, the United bankruptcy could hardly come at a worse time.
Chuck Cannon, Denver International Airport spokesman, said the airport had planned for a "worst-case scenario" that would result in a 30 percent reduction in connecting passenger traffic.
Even with such a forecast, Mr. Cannon said, the airport could continue to cover its debt load. He said that origination and destination traffic is unlikely to decrease dramatically.
"We think that if United files Chapter 11 and reorganizes their operation, there won't be a significant impact," he said. "People will still keep coming to Denver. They may just have to do it on other airlines."
Mr. Cannon predicts that Denver will continue to operate as a major airline hub if United reduces its flight load. He said the airport, with its three bad-weather runways, operates more efficiently in snow than the other United hubs.
"They may reduce fewer flights here because they're making money here," Mr. Cannon said. "They've got a nice, efficient operation here. They can move flights in and out even in bad weather."
United has larger hubs both Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and San Francisco International Airport offer more flights but nowhere is United more dominant than in Denver. The airline's closest rival is Frontier Airlines, which accounts for less than 12 percent of passenger traffic.
Other major airlines, such as American and Continental, account for 10 percent or less of the airport's business.
A United bankruptcy filing could result in a downgrade of the airport's bond debt from its A-plus rating. Airport managers already have been asked to cut 6 percent more from their 2003 budgets.
"There's a lot at stake here," said Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine in Colorado Springs.
He said the September 11 terrorist attacks might have helped prepare airports like Denver's for a season of post-crisis belt-tightening.
"The airlines, after September 11, didn't start flying 100 percent of their schedule right away," Mr. Petersen said. "So the airports have seen a smaller United already. If anything, it'll be deja vu all over again for all the hubs."

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