By Joel Warner
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By William Breathes
Late last month a smiling Edward Beauvais appeared at the Colorado Springs Airport in a wizard's costume to announce his Western Pacific Airline's new $59 "mystery trip" fares. To Beauvais's many Colorado Springs admirers, the sorcerer's garb was appropriate.
For civic boosters in Colorado Springs, after all, the last seven months have been like a fairy tale. The April launch of low-fare Western Pacific has brought thousands of passengers to the city's new $80 million airport, many of them Denver residents fleeing the high cost of flying out of Denver International Airport. Thanks to clever gimmicks such as the "mystery trip" (travelers put down their money without having any idea where they'll be going) and a plane bearing the smiling face of cartoon hipster Bart Simpson, the public has been captivated by Western Pacific--and by its 58-year-old founder, Pueblo native Beauvais.
With business booming, Western Pacific plans to add several new destinations to the thirteen cities it serves from Colorado Springs, doubling the size of its fleet and employing as many as 2,000 people by the end of next year. Plans are in the works to build a second concourse at the airport, primarily to accommodate the fast-growing carrier. Springs officials are falling all over themselves to join the chorus of hosannas for their new hometown airline.
It isn't the first time Beauvais has put a town under his spell.
The airline Beauvais founded in Phoenix in 1983, America West, grew with the speed of a desert wildfire. Starting with three planes and a handful of employees, the carrier rode the booming Southwest economy to become the ninth-largest airline in the country, with 115 planes and 15,000 employees. New 747s flew from Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport to Hawaii and Japan, and Beauvais became an Arizona folk hero for bringing the state a low-fare airline whose rapid growth earned it international attention.
But on June 27, 1991, Beauvais's extended honeymoon ended in a nasty divorce. On that day, America West was forced into bankruptcy. By the time angry creditors managed to get the airline into court, it was in debt for more than $1.2 billion. As thousands of employees lost their jobs and the company stock they had been required to buy became nearly worthless, the success story began to look more like a horror movie. Beauvais, whose aggressive expansion campaign was widely blamed for overextending the airline, was pushed out of America West in 1992 in a behind-the-scenes coup by angry investors.
Today America West is back on its feet, bolstered by an infusion of $214 million from several large investment groups. But for bitter America West employees and creditors who almost saw their airline die, the glowing news accounts coming out of Colorado Springs are eerily familiar. In their eyes, Beauvais is no financial wizard--just a purveyor of black magic.
"The employees feel like they were left holding the bag," says Alan Crawford, a pilot for America West and vice chairman of the Airline Pilots Association local in Phoenix. Like most America West employees, Crawford lost almost all of the money he invested in the airline. And he says his experience with America West should serve as a cautionary tale for those in Colorado Springs who are lining up to jump on Beauvais's latest bandwagon.
"Ed Beauvais has burned a lot of people before," says Crawford. "History repeats itself."
America West's spectacular crash landing made headlines for months in the nation's financial press. But Beauvais has had little trouble crawling from the wreckage. Three years after losing his million-dollar mansion in Phoenix and being spurned by that city's civic leaders, he's comfortably ensconced in Colorado Springs--and again playing the role of the conquering hero. Since hitting town last year and taking up residence in a $251,000 home on Camel Drivers Lane, Beauvais has become a celebrity in the Springs, making frequent appearances at the exclusive El Paso Club and serving as a popular speaker at chamber of commerce forums.
"It's unbelievable how well Western Pacific is doing," says Colorado Springs airport director Gary Green. "It was something nobody could have predicted. This startup airline seems to be doing better than any other in the country. Our chamber of commerce for years tried to get additional air service here; now we've got it big time."
A few weeks ago Western Pacific announced that it's heading to the stock market, where it expects to sell 3 million shares and raise as much as $50 million. The carrier, which lost $1.9 million between May and August of this year and has yet to turn a profit, says it will use the proceeds from stock sales to add eight new Boeing 737s to its fleet and expand its reservation center. Investor interest in the offering is strong, and brokers expect the stock to sell out quickly.
"Every time something goes wrong at DIA, it's a buy recommendation for Western Pacific," says Scott Hamilton, editor of Commercial Aviation Report, a Dallas-based trade publication. "It's going to be a blowout stock offering. I think the post-initial offering price will jump dramatically."
Beauvais launched Western Pacific with $27 million in equity, with the bulk of the cash raised via a discreet appeal to the Colorado Springs elite. The airline's single largest investor is billionaire Edward Gaylord, with a 30 percent stake. Gaylord also owns the Broadmoor Hotel, the Grand Ole Opry and an Oklahoma City-based chain of newspapers and country-music cable-TV networks. Members of the Hill family, who inherited a fortune from the Hunt oil empire in Texas, also hold a sizable chunk of Western Pacific stock.