Frontier’s New Plan Shrinks the Midwest, Grows Colorado

Frontier has been moving on its plan to reinvent itself very quickly, and last week it rolled out some big changes that will fall into place over the next few months. In short, the old Midwest Airlines hubs are shrinking while it grows its presence in Colorado where competitors aren’t. This airline is going to look very different by the end of this year.

Frontier Loses Midwestern Weight

The news sounded great when the first announcement came out with a bunch of new routes from Denver and Colorado Springs. But all new routes need airplanes, and they have to come from somewhere The next day it was announced that many of the Milwaukee and Kansas City routes were gone. These changes all fall into distinct categories, in my eyes. Here’s how I see it.

Filling the AirTran Hole
Of the five new Denver routes that Frontier is rolling out, two have a common theme – they’re former AirTran cities. With the merger proceeding, Southwest is pulling AirTran out of smaller cities, and Frontier is seizing the day. We already saw it when the airline replaced AirTran on the Knoxville – Orlando route, and now we’re seeing it again.

Frontier will start flights from Denver to Bloomington/Normal (IL) and Harrisburg (PA). These cities had AirTran service into Florida and into the airline’s Atlanta hub, but now they’ve lost all low cost service into a hub city. Frontier sees an opportunity to step in, even if it’s a dramatically different hub. Bloomington will be four times a week and Harrisburg three times, so it’s not a huge risk.

Skirting Southwest in Denver
Those two former AirTran cities also share something in common with the other three new Frontier routes. They’re all small cities, and that’s what Frontier is banking on to succeed in Denver. After all, United and Southwest have broad coverage and Southwest is only going to keep growing its presence. So what can Frontier do? It can look for other places where Southwest won’t be able to serve with its business model.

Frontier will start four weekly flights to Cedar Rapids (IA), four weekly flights to Great Falls (MT), and a daily flight to Bellingham (WA). These are cities that Southwest is unlikely to ever serve unless it decides to open up its business model. Considering the moves we’ve seen Southwest make with AirTran (small cities = goodbye), that change isn’t coming anytime soon.

The Ghosts of Western Pacific
While the Denver adds seem smart, many appear to be thrown for a loop by Frontier’s decision to start flying from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, and Seattle. This is a somewhat risky move, but it’s worth a shot.

This might sound like shades of Western Pacific back in the 1990s. That airline started up with a hub in Colorado Springs and offered low fare service around the US. (I even flew it a couple of times back and forth to college.) It eventually moved the hub to Denver, attempted to merger with Frontier, and ultimately failed miserably. What’s different now?

First, Frontier isn’t going in with a lot of capacity. Only Phoenix is daily while the rest are 3 to 6 times per week. Believe it or not, even US Airways doesn’t fly to Phoenix from Colorado Springs, but Frontier thinks that it can make things work with this low frequency option. A fair number of people drive the short distance from Colorado Springs up to Denver to take advantage of cheap fares and frequent flights. Frontier is betting that enough people would rather stick to Colorado Springs, so it can steal passengers who might fly Southwest and United out of Denver otherwise. This didn’t work for Frontier in Long Beach (trying to take passengers from other airlines at Orange County and LAX), but that doesn’t mean it can’t work here.

Still, this seems like the riskiest of the moves so far, but we’re only talking about a couple of flights per day to start so it’s a good test. Besides, it’s probably better than what those airplanes are doing now . . .

Death of the Cookie, Again
So where are all these airplanes coming from? Other routes are getting the axe. Milwaukee loses service to Dallas, Grand Rapid, Kansas City, Newark, Philly, and Phoenix. That leaves just 18 daily flights. In the end, Milwaukee will likely see flights to Denver, Vegas, New York/LaGuardia, Washington/National, and some Florida/Mexico. I imagine it’s just a matter of time until all the smaller markets like Nashville on down are gone.

Kansas City loses Houston, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and yes, Milwaukee. There are only 13 daily flights left there. I imagine that we’ll see Denver, Washington/National, and Florida/Mexico flights survive there in the end.

Ditching the Props
Another route-ending that might catch some by surprise is Denver to Aspen. Why is that going? Because Aspen is served only with Q400 props, and Frontier is finally retiring those after a few false starts. That route simply has to go if the Q400s go away. It’s hardly worth keeping those airplanes for just one route, especially as the airline strives to be an ultra low cost carrier.

The odd man out here is San Antonio. It doesn’t fit into any category but it will lose its only Frontier flights to Denver. This route must simply have underperformed so Frontier is pulling the plug.

In the end, this is a lot of change in a very short amount of time. I think most of it makes sense to try, though I will be surprised if everything works. That’s another hallmark of ultra low cost carriers – try a bunch of new routes and quickly walk away if they don’t work out. I expect that’s how we’ll see Frontier operate going forward.

[Original photo via Flickr user cliff1066™/CC 2.0]

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