Frontier Likes What It Sees in Trenton, Adds More Flights

Frontier has thrown a lot of new routes out there in its quest to become an ultra low cost carrier. Many have failed, but there appears to be at least one gem that keeps getting more and more flights. That gem is Trenton. (And yes, this is probably the first time anyone has ever called Trenton a gem.) For the second time since service was first announced last August, Trenton has been expanded. This time it’s not the usual Florida leisure flying. We’re seeing big city flights.

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing special about Trenton itself other than the fact that it has a well-located airport that’s cheap to use. In fact, Frontier doesn’t even call the airport Trenton – it calls it Princeton/Trenton and has it show up under both Newark area and Philadelphia area airports on its website.

View Trenton in a larger map

That is the magic of Trenton. The airport lies right off I-95 near a wealthy population center in southern New Jersey. It’s also only 35 miles from Philadelphia and 55 miles from Newark. It’s relatively close to a train station served by Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and SEPTA. (According to the airport, it’s a $12 cab ride.) So the location is highly accessible.

For Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia is the primary airport. There is very little low fare competition there (even Southwest couldn’t make its not-so-low-ish fares work on a large scale). For Central and Northern New Jersey, the primary airport is Newark. That airport is at capacity with very few low cost carriers.

So you have an enormous population with few low fare options. Trenton’s location is perfect for an ultra low cost carrier to do it right. The reality is that the business traveler is going to pay for the closest airport with the most flights. But there are plenty of other people who are willing to drive for a cheap fare even if they can’t fly exactly when they want to. That’s what Frontier is targeting.

In the past, this market hasn’t worked out but there are several reasons for that. One is that the type of service tried didn’t make much sense. For example, Shuttle America (before it was a regional feeder) flew up to Boston’s Hanscom Field. That was supposed to be more of a business schedule. And Delta flew regional jets to a hub, but with better fares and a far better schedule in Newark and Philly, that high cost service wasn’t going to work out.

Eastwind got closer back in the 1990s but it made a mistake flying to cities like Greensboro and Richmond among other places. It didn’t get the model right either. But even if it had, the area might not have been ready for the right model at that time. But now with people used to paying fees for everything and airlines like Allegiant showing that sub-daily flights work, there is an opportunity.

Enter Frontier
Frontier dipped its toe into the Trenton waters back in August when it announced twice-weekly flights to Orlando beginning November 16. This was probably the safest of routes to try. Plenty of families look for cheap flights to go down to Orlando and if anything could work, this one should.

This was a very Allegiant-style route. Bring people from the local Trenton area down to the big leisure destination. But with a 6,000 foot runway, I’m not even sure Allegiant could have done this if it wanted to with its MD-80s. Now that it has Airbuses coming in, it could have tried it, but Frontier got there first.

It didn’t take Frontier long to like what it was seeing. The day before Orlando flights were to start, November 15, Frontier said it would add a bunch more destinations.

Starting January 31, Frontier would add 3 weekly flights to Ft Lauderdale, 2 weekly flights to Ft Myers, 2 weekly flights to New Orleans, and 3 weekly flights to Tampa. In addition, it bumped up its Orlando flights from 2 to 4 weekly.

All of these adds were consistent with the Allegiant-style of service. It was about bringing people from the Trenton area to the bigger leisure destinations. (New Orleans might be a bit outside that model, but it still fits.) Apparently the demand for that first Orlando offering was strong enough for Frontier to really jump into the market. It even opted to base an A319 at the airport to make aircraft flows work better.

I received emails from people after this announcement wondering if I would be writing about it. Though I was keeping a close eye on the expansion, it still felt like Frontier was testing the waters. But yesterday, we saw a big move by the airline. Now Frontier is going to start serving big cities from Trenton that aren’t leisure destinations.

Starting in April, Frontier will start flying the following:

  • Atlanta – 4 times weekly
  • Chicago/Midway – 6 times weekly
  • Columbus – 3 times weekly
  • Detroit – 4 times weekly
  • Raleigh/Durham – 6 times weekly

This is no longer about taking people from Trenton and dumping them off at Disney World or at your grandparents’ house. This is about serving the larger groupings of people going between the two regions.

It shows that Trenton is both an origin and a destination because of the surrounding area that it serves. It’s a low cost offering in a sea of high cost options. Frontier isn’t going to be stealing business traffic. Even with some of these approaching one flight a day, that’s not nearly enough to appeal to a business traveler.

This is about getting friends and family back and forth to visit each other. Or its about the college kid going to visit Philly on a very tight budget. These are people who might drive today because the cost and time involved with a flight from Newark or Philly is prohibitive. It’s not about taking traffic from the other airports but rather it’s about stimulating new traffic in the ultra-price sensitive category.

Considering the expansion we’ve seen so far, it sounds like people are responding to the new service. I would imagine we’re going to see this get a lot bigger. Not every route will work, but Frontier has tapped into a real opportunity here.

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