Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic, in the carrier’s northwest Indianapolis headquarters. (It’s that building on the right, in the shadow of the odd-looking pyramid buildings.) You may not know the name Republic, but you know some of its brands: Frontier, Midwest, Chautauqua, Shuttle America, and Republic Airlines.
Our hour-long conversation was just downright fascinating covering topics from religion, to integration with Frontier and Midwest, along with bundling vs a la carte pricing and more. When we first sat down, Bryan immediately asked about me. We spent nearly ten minutes on my background before getting into the airline talk, which is where we begin today. I’ve broken this across the aisle interview down into three parts. Today, we start with the airline’s recent expansion and go into the strategy and now-discontinued multiple brand strategy. (Part 2 on competition and fees, Part 3 on religion)
ON THE RESULTS OF FRONTIER’S RECENT EXPANSION
Bryan: Where are you living now?
Cranky: Long Beach, actually, and I’m flying you back on Monday.
Bryan: Thank you.
Cranky: Gotta make sure we keep you there.
Bryan: Of all the new markets that we’ve opened that’s the one that’s really struggling. We’re trying some targeted advertising in Denver, because a lot of folks in Denver don’t know where Long Beach is. We’re trying to figure out how to get people to understand that it’s the Southern California alternative.
We’re opening 15 new markets and that is the only one that’s not hitting its revenue forecast. Some are just barely making it, like Santa Barbara is just, but some, like Branson, what a shocker.
Cranky: I was gonna say, you’ve already added capacity there.
Bryan: It’s blowing the doors off. The only reason we went there was because we had a really high revenue guarantee.
Cranky: I guess you won’t need the revenue guarantee right now.
Bryan: No, it’s going to be very profitable.
ON THE INITIAL REASON FOR BUYING FRONTIER AND MIDWEST
Cranky: So the strategy seems to be now more find the right markets for the Embraers.
Bryan: Step back a bit and look at a higher level. We’ve had great growth, great expansion through 2008. Then the fuel shock happened and we learned a couple of things. One, airlines are very jaundiced about adding capacity, and two, consolidation is on everybody’s mind and a lot of people’s lips. . . . Quite frankly it’s happened slower than I would have thought. I think the first go around with Continental and United should have been done . . . when United’s market cap was $600 million instead of $3.6 billion.
As the operator, consolidation is good since it makes your partners stronger . . . but the fact is that when they combine, if 70% of their passengers are flow, they can flow them through anywhere they want. So they can operate larger capacity planes by funneling more flow over a specific hub. Dehubbing becomes a very serious option.
Cranky: Shrinking pie for regionals
Bryan: Shrinking pie for regionals and certainly shrinking pie for smaller regional jets. We have to acknowledge there’s just not a lot of growth opportunities. There’s the opportunity for market share to move around, but having alternatives is healthy. We never wanted to be so big with one airline so that the loss of that partner would be an extinction model for us. But now, the fact that our core business is at risk for virtually no growth if not contraction, if there’s one area that can benefit from the capacity reduction and consolidation, it’s the LCC side.
ON REGIONAL CONSOLIDATION
Cranky: Do you expect consolidation on the regional side?
Bryan: There’s a lot more discussion about it. The Wall Street analysts love transactions, you know? It’s hard to consolidate because most of the contracts that we all have have change in control provisions that in some cases allow partners to cancel deals or at least renegotiate deals.
Cranky: Could be something like a Mesa in bankruptcy?
Bryan: I won’t say that it’s impossible. Nothing is impossible. I won’t even say it’s implausible, because when there’s a will there’s a way. . . . We’re all looking for the same thing. Where can you take out non value-add expenses to become more cost effective. I just think it’s hard because the seller is not necessarily controlling the revenue stream.
ON THE NOW DISCONTINUED MULTIPLE BRAND STRATEGY
Cranky: So now you’re in the [low cost carrier] LCC space. You started bringing Midwest and Frontier together. The question I asked you in Phoenix is “are you regretting it yet?”
Cranky: It’s been an interesting road. I’m particularly curious. It seems like at the beginning you had this plan to operate multiple brands, get the operational efficiency of running them behind the scenes. Clearly there’s been a change to go toward the Frontier brand after a few months of this. So what have you seen? Is the multiple brand thing something that just doesn’t work for a single airline?
Bryan: When we started looking at the possibilities of these acquisitions, we went outside the airline industry. Avis and Budget was a good example of the model where, here’s a company that’s in the rental car business where they have the premium Avis brand and the discount is Budget. And they seem to coexist well. And that was really sort of the example of a model where we were going to go after.
Cranky: Where Midwest would be the premium brand and Frontier . . .
Bryan: . . . the discount brand, yeah. We learned quickly. The education that we got was in 2009 we bought these brands at the trough of the recession and there was no demand for premium anything. So the Midwest response, even before we bought them was to make less premium available . . . so there was a lot of experimentation out of desperation to try and figure out a model that would allow that airline to work. Everything was working against them.
Cranky: Especially in Milwaukee
Bryan: Yeah, so we did start the customer research process not necessarily to pick one brand or not but just to measure brand health and try to figure out what resonated with customers. What we discovered was the Milwaukee community wanted the same thing as everyone else. They wanted affordable fares, nonstop service. In their own ways, each one of these airlines are trying to provide that.
A lot of what we learned is the Midwest brand had this perception of what it was back then. Customers would revisit the airline and there would always be disappointment. “That’s not what I remember Midwest to be.” And they were right, it wasn’t.
Cranky: They were lobster and fine china back in the ’90s.
Bryan: The Milwaukee community loved it but as soon as the economy soured, budgets went from buy first to buy coach. But sorry, you can’t buy that on Midwest. After all the struggles they went through, they still enjoy lots of hometown customer support. That underdog role that they took on with AirTran, people wanted them to succeed. But they really weren’t fulfilling the need of the customer at the end of the day. Shrinking service from the west coast, abandoning the west coast. Huge, huge mistake. Then again, the MD80s burned so much gas and the 717s couldn’t make it to the west coast. They had few choices and they were all bad.
Cranky: And now you have Frontier. Have you seen the acceptance levels, is there anything different now that Midwest is gone from Milwaukee?
Bryan: Interestingly enough, one, Frontier actually has great customer service. The inflight experience is actually very complementary. Having TV on the airplane is a new amenity for folks in Milwaukee and they really like it. We thought there was a need to try to bridge between what was Frontier and what was Midwest and the answer to that is Stretch [extra legroom seating].
I’ll post the rest of the interview over the next week or so.