Spirit Goes Into One of the Most Competitive Markets In the US, But Why?

It’s Spirit week here at Cranky, and not in the “ra ra, go team” kind of way. I’m talking about Spirit Airlines. I actually hadn’t planned on talking about them twice this week, but soon after the Cardinal’s guest post went live, I saw Spirit announce one of the strangest route additions I’ve seen in a long time. For some reason, the airline is going to fly five times a day from LA to Vegas. I don’t get it.

There are a few reasons you might decide to go into a market, but the best is that it’s commercially viable. I don’t see that as being the case here. Here is a table showing the number of flights from the LA Basin to Vegas.

Airport Airline Daily Flights Each Way
LAX Southwest 12
Delta 6
United 6
American 5
US Airways 4
Burbank Southwest 11
JetBlue 1
Ontario Southwest 8
Long Beach JetBlue 5
Allegiant .57 (less than daily)
Orange County Southwest 7
Delta 1

Yes, Vegas to LA is a big market, but as you can see, there is plenty of service including a lot from low cost carriers, not to mention carloads full of people who would rather drive anyway. So can Spirit come in and scrape a bunch of low dollar people out of the cars and put them on an airplane? Maybe. But I can’t see that being a profitable move, especially since a fare war is already in full effect. Even if the airline finds a way to make this profitable, is it really the best use for an airplane? I mean, these are brand new birds, and there has to be a better way to use them than this.

But there are other reasons airlines fly routes, like utilization. For example, Continental has an airplane sitting overnight at LAX, so it decided to send it to Hawai’i. It was either that, or sit on the ground. Heck, the entire America West Vegas Nite Flight hub was based on utilizing airplanes at night when they would otherwise just be parked. So is that what Spirit is doing here? It’s unclear, actually.

This isn’t one plane going back and forth all day. Three of the airplanes continue to Detroit, one to Dallas, and the other to Ft Lauderdale. So I suppose it’s possible that these airplanes had some extra ground time in Vegas before heading east again and this is how the airline decided to spend that time. But that doesn’t make a ton of sense either. There have to be less crowded markets that could be served from Vegas with similar distances. But why would that even need to be the case? There aren’t any slots in Vegas, and as an ultra low cost carrier, Spirit’s goal is to fly these airplanes whenever they’re ready to go, not necessarily at the best commercial times. For the people Spirit is courting, they’ll fly anytime.

Spirit Las Vegas to LA

I do, however, wonder if this is part of a larger assault on LA. These airplanes consistently sit on the ground in Vegas for 30 to 40 minutes. The times fit well. But in LA, it’s all over the map. I actually tried to connect the dots between airplanes the come to LA and I can’t. Some airplanes are sitting for almost two hours before there’s a flight going back. And one would actually require a 26 minute turnaround. It just doesn’t seem right the way these are scheduled. So I do wonder if more might be coming in LA to make this schedule fill out better. But then, why do you need 5 airplanes coming from Vegas every day? You don’t.

This could also be an old-fashioned ego fight. Maybe Spirit wants to send Southwest a message that it’s going to fight the airline on its turf, and this is a very good way to get noticed. These ego fights are just so stupid that I won’t even address it. If that’s the point, then Spirit is in trouble. I don’t believe it.

The last theory comes from Airliners.net. According to one poster, Vegas has two tiers of airport charges and part of the criteria to qualify for the lower rate is a certain number of flights per day. So Spirit is adding five more flights as quickly as possible to get to that point.

This one just doesn’t seem right either. I mean, Spirit has 9 daily flights this summer from Vegas before LA. Would it really make sense to fly 5 marginal-at-best flights to LA just to bring down costs on 9 other flights? The math just won’t add up on that unless we’re talking about an insanely big discount that I can’t imagine.

In the end, LA to Vegas is going to end up in an ugly fare war for the foreseeable future. It’s great for us Angelenos but not for anyone in the industry.

You guys have any theories on this?

[Original Vegas photo via Flickr user Bukowsky18/CC 2.0]

[Updated at 741a to reflect Delta’s flights from LAX]

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