Frontier Charts Its Course as an Ultra Low Cost Carrier

It’s been entirely clear for a few months that Republic wants to spin Frontier off into a standalone airline, but the question has been . . . how would they make that work when the airline was losing money? Now it looks like we might know. Frontier is becoming an ultra low cost carrier, but I’m not quite sure yet what exactly that means.

Last week, the airline announced that Dave Siegel would be taking over as the top boss. This is all part of the separation process from Republic. As part of that announcement, we also learned that former Allegiant planning guru Robert Ashcroft would run finance, and Daniel Shurz, currently the strategy and planning mastermind, would be promoted to run the whole commercial side of the business. So the team is falling into place, but what are they going to do now?

Frontier Goes ULCC

The most interesting tidbit from that press release was a quote from Republic chief Bryan Bedford. He talked about the process to “continue [Frontier’s] transformation into a profitable ultra-low-cost-carrier.”

Wait, what? I can’t remember them tossing around the ULCC moniker for this airline before in such bold fashion. Maybe it’s been mentioned, but this seems to be the most clear affirmation of the airline’s strategy going forward. I like it.

When you think of a ULCC, you probably think of Ryanair in Europe or Allegiant and Spirit here in the US. These are airlines that work extremely hard to keep their costs very low so that they can also offer incredibly low fares. Those fares tend to exclude just every possible optional service, which allows them to keep the base fares even lower thanks to all the ancillary revenue that comes in the door. You know how this model works.

So is that where Frontier is going? Directionally, yes. But that doesn’t mean it will be a clone. Frontier has historically tried to build itself up as a beacon of quality customer service, and that often seems contradictory to the ULCC model. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Frontier already charges for TV, it charges for better legroom, and it’s built up a fairly comprehensive chart of additional services that can be bought. It has reduced seat pitch over the years as well, though not to the level you would expect of a ULCC. This isn’t the same Frontier as several years ago, but there’s probably more change to come.

The airline has worked very hard to get costs down, and that’s the most important thing required in order to become an ultra low COST carrier. Having low costs enables the airline to make money on a variety of routes that it might not be able to do otherwise through stimulation via low fares, but its costs are still not in the same league as the those of Allegiant and Spirit. More has to be done, but that’s why they’re building this team. Robert Ashcroft knows how a ULCC needs to operate and he’ll be able to get the financial side of the house in order. Daniel Shurz and his team can deftly continue the commercial shift that they’ve already begun.

The timing for this couldn’t be much better. Frontier has the potential to be able to really benefit from the disappearance of AirTran and others. Take a look at some of the recent route moves, which show the path already being followed.

  • On January 9, Frontier announced it would begin 3x weekly flights between Knoxville and Orlando, a route that AirTran is abandoning thanks to Southwest’s takeover.
  • On December 12, Frontier said it would start flying between Denver and Rockford 3x weekly. This is the kind of subsidized route that AirTran used to jump at, though it would have probably been Atlanta instead of Denver.
  • On December 7, Frontier released its seasonal Florida schedule. That’s nothing new, but it does seem to be a more coordinated effort. This takes a page from Allegiant’s playbook by bringing travelers to Florida during peak season, but it’s not from tiny cities like Allegiant. Instead, flights are from mid-size cities.
  • Last August 29, Frontier revealed that it would begin doing contract charter flying for Apple Vacations. Previously, Apple relied on its own airline, USA3000, but it has decided to wind that airline down. Contract flying like this can be lucrative and is also out of the Allegiant playbook. Allegiant does a fair amount of charter flying for casino groups like Harrah’s.

Does all this make sense? Well, yeah, it does. Frontier has long struggled with where it fits in Denver (and in the US in general). There’s not much growth on the full service side of the industry nor on the high end low cost model either. But as Southwest’s costs have continued to rise, it has become less of a low cost, and more importantly, low fare, carrier every year. The higher Southwest’s costs, the more opportunity for other airlines to come in with much lower costs and win with lower fares. That’s the message Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has put out. AirTran used to be expert at doing that kind of thing, but it will now be brought up to Southwest’s cost levels and its route network will change, creating more opportunity for others to join the likes of Allegiant and Spirit.

It hasn’t been an easy path for Frontier employees, and I’m not sure that it’s about to get much easier for them. But this is where the potential growth is in this industry, and it’s the best chance for Frontier to succeed. I’m not sure what this means for Frontier’s product and its ultimate route network, but hopefully the team will be able to find a way to marry the customer service reputation with a ULCC model to create a very attractive offering for travelers.

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