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.


42 Responses to Frontier Likes What It Sees in Trenton, Adds More Flights

  1. Kilroy says:

    Very interesting analysis, Brett. Would love to see more breakdowns like this.

  2. DC says:

    If they base a second plane there they would not have to decide between a rat or a cockroach for the livery.

  3. Two quick points: First, I hope Frontier does well in Trenton. Second, as I see it, companies don’t “steal” business, they earn it.

  4. Vinay says:

    I know that ABE has tried to position itself as an alternative airport to EWR and PHL. Frontier has some Florida flights there (took over from Airtran). Any chance they would expand at both locations? Or is it pretty much one or the other for this region?

  5. RC says:

    Maybe I missed it, but do you have any thoughts about why service through Trenton airport is doing better than Atlantic City?

    • Marty says:

      Atlantic City is just over an hour from Philly and close to 90 mins from Trenton . In other words, its way too far away from the huge population base that will use Trenton as an alternative to Philadelphia or Newark .

  6. Sanjeev M says:

    Yes! I know tons of people in South Jersey who would use flights like these. Hopefully the word gets out quickly and Frontier can make these flights stick.
    South Jersey has a number of refineries, tech and bio companies whose employees make good money. These people have to drive 45 minutes to PHL or EWR so hopefully they will use the service.

    Still very surprising to see no DEN service.

    Atlanta and Chicago/Midway ? fighting WN where F9 has the advantage
    Columbus and Detroit – Brett is spot on. Its basically family and college traffic that would otherwise drive the 10 hours.
    Raleigh/Durham ? biology research connections and college traffic

    • Fred says:

      Maybe the runway isn’t long enough for a Denver flight? (More fuel needed, so the plane is heavier)

    • Eric R. says:

      Sanjeev:

      Fred is correct; the issue is the runway length. For a 1600 mile flight to Denver, they likely need an additional 800-1000′ of runway, and Trenton does not have the space to extend theirs.

      • C.C says:

        Frontier is offering service to DEN from TTN everyday except Tuesday and Saturday. Planes make one stop in Chicago (no plane change).

  7. When I first heard this I quickly thought about the poor airport manager and business owners at the airport. They are so happy now, but will they be if this doesn’t working out and Frontier pulls out. We’ve seen this before so the airport should be jumping for joy or planning big improvement projects that they will regret later on.

    I often wonder why an airline doesn’t ask the local people where they would like to fly if the airline were to start service in their city. Or put out a list of cities and have people chose. I know you’re all laughing, but business use someone else computer data to decide what to do in a certain city/area, but they never ask the people who live there who would use the service/business what they want. Build it and they will come only works 100% in movies, not real life.

    • Sean S. says:

      Except people lie on surveys, pretty consistently. Why? Because answers are often more involved than simply “Would you like to fly to X?” It comes down to “How long would flights be?”, “How much?”, “And what connections do I get?” Its why hub and spoke models work so well and why point to point has a natural limit on taking business away from traditional carriers, because for certain travelers (though not the one’s Brett is talking about above in the occasional flier category) are concerned about things other than simply direct point to point access. It’s a niche certainly that can be mined pretty well, but its often vicious, and is difficult to pull off without the “cushion” of the traditional air warrior business traveller on your side.

    • Hunter says:

      Actually, cities DO ask. Particularly where there’s EAS money or grant money involved in driving growth, cities and airports will go out to the public with surveys. I live in SGU, and that effort is currently underway to determine the best approach to starting DEN service. I am sure the approach varies from situation to situation, but in response to your comment airports/cities/airlines do regularly commission surveys and studies that solicit public input.

  8. tacony says:

    “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”

    But of course the airport’s not actually in Trenton anyway– very few airports are located in downtowns and colonial city limits for obvious reasons. It’s in Ewing Township, which is just north of Trenton. It’s formal name is “Trenton Mercer Airport” and it was formerly just called “Mercer County Airport.” Adding “Princeton” to the name is obviously Frontier’s attempt at connecting it to a high-wealth, high-status place where a lot of people are flying (Princeton is actually a small town but it has great name recognition/class signals– businesses 5 miles outside Princeton clamor for a Princeton address despite not being in town).

    No matter what you call it I think Frontier can do well here.

  9. Ron says:

    When I lived in central Jersey (over a decade ago) it was not uncommon for people to go to Philly for cheaper fares, even though it involved a three-train shuffle (NJT to Trenton, SEPTA to 30th Street, and the airport line). These people will definitely be happy with low cost options at Trenton.

    The Trenton–Boston Hanscom flights keep reappearing under different operators, the latest being Streamline Air which shut down just a few months ago. One wonders who’s behind the constant resurrection of this failing route.

    Trenton is indeed a major rail hub (Amtrak, NJT and SEPTA service on the Northeast Corridor, as well as the River Line light rail to Camden), but there’s a station even closer to the airport — West Trenton on the old Reading line, a mere 3 road miles from the terminal, currently with SEPTA service to Philly. And if NJ ever funds its portion of the West Trenton Line, there will also be service to Newark.

  10. Gabe Andino says:

    What I find interesting is that F9 has been adding these TTN routes in advance. For instance, the first wave of expansion (FLL, TPA, RSW and MSY) was announced before the first MCO flight even operated. And now this second wave is announced before the flights to the first new set of cities have even started. Is the demand on the MCO (and other leisure city) flights that robust for them to make the leap to additional cities so quickly? It’d be interesting to know what’s motivated them to expand this city so rapidly.

    In any case, I live in Northern New Jersey and fly to MCO, TPA and Chicago pretty regularly so this is indeed a nice option to have, especially when flying with the family. I hope this strategy works out for them over the long term.

    • Ed says:

      Gabe, Republic (owners of Frontier) often act impulsively. This impulsiveness is evident both when entering a market as well as exiting a market. They jump in quickly but sometimes do not give it a chance. This is in sharp contrast to an airline like Southwest, who appear to study things in a lot more detail. There is danger that Frontier could launch too much too fast and fail–rather than going a bit slower & doing things well in the long run.

      • Ed, you’ve got a point there. I hope they’re not biting off more than they can chew here. The strategy makes sense with regards to low-frequency service to leisure cities, and maybe major destinations like MDW and ATL, I think Frontier will be successful there. It’ll be interesting to see how some of the non-Florida routes like RDU and CMH do. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see them get dropped down the road.

      • davywavy says:

        Except that things at Frontier have changed. Republic still owns Frontier, but the new CEO – David Siegel – has sole responsibility for Frontier and is charged with one thing – making Frontier consistently profitable.

        Since Mr. Seigel has said that Frontier will report a full year profit in 2012 – the first full year profit since 2003 – he seems to be making the right moves.

        Based on the reaction to the December 31 upwards revision of Frontier’s Q4 margins, certainly Wall Street thinks so.

  11. JRS says:

    My local airport (Lansing, Michigan) used their own records of passengers with
    connecting flights and going to other airports in pitching various proposals to airlines for routes that looked most promising. When Sun Country started here a few years ago they had one weekly seasonal flight to Cancun to test the market and then expanded that to 4 fights a week the next year (too many it turned out) and reduced that to three and also added a weekly flight to Jamaica. For some reason two weekly flights to Ft. Myers was a bust and those were dropped after the first year and Jamaica also dropped after the second year to be replaced with one weekly to Punta Cana and Puerto Vallarta. A daily flight to Washington DC has been a success. Would a different method of surveying the public gotten better results? It is possible but who knows?

    Overall getting a discount airline really helped this airport which was bleeding
    money badly for years.

  12. Cooper says:

    This is really genius on Frontier’s part, there’s a decent segment of Greater Philadelphia’s population in Bucks County PA and the immediate South Jersey suburbs that will jump on this. Rather than drive in a roundabout way, through traffic and construction choked bridges and highways to get to PHL; or drive upwards of an hour through the pines to get to barebones ACY, there’s a convenient option right in their own back yard. My only worry for Frontier is the ATL route. Between US and DL there are at least 15 non-stops a day from PHL, seems like oversaturation

  13. Brandon says:

    I’m curious if they are partnering with a lot of vacation package companies to help fill seats. The population is there – they just need the marketing, costs and product quality to come together for success.

    I also wonder if we’ll see a new wave of service to tertiary airports for leisure flights.

  14. Total says:

    Note also that Trenton is on the NJ Transit line that goes straight into Penn Station in New York. It’s not much more than an hour train ride into NYC.

  15. Seems like it would’ve been a great market for SWA to enter about five years ago, before they made their push into primary airports. PHL does not have a lot of competition – Trenton could siphon off a fair amount of Jersey area Philly traffic.

  16. yo says:

    Now, if only we could have a Trenton to Gary non-stop, so we could have the worst city pair in America!

  17. ZonWings says:

    RDU-TTN in particular is genius in so many ways, if marketed right. There’s a ton of people in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area that originated in the East Pennsylvania/Central New Jersey area that lacked an option other than Philadelphia. Also, large amounts of pharmaceutical traffic between Raleigh and Central New Jersey that is more easily accessible to Trenton than Philadelphia. However, there needs to be more frequency. 6 weekly really doesn’t suits the demand here. I would say that three daily would be the right amount to increase to to attract business and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) traffic that I think this route could generate. Don’t know too much about the potential for the other routes, but I could see Chicago and Atlanta do well.

  18. JayB says:

    I wish Trenton and Frontier well.

    Reading this blog, one can see people like Cranky, his guest posters, and his commenters have a lot of insight into these types of situations, which look simple, but often are quite complicated.

    To me, I’ve seen communities who know little about their local inhabitants and their propensity to travel (and to where), even less about people from outside who might want to visit, work, or play locally, and even less about why airlines may want to serve their community and be willing to make a commitment to make things a go. Then, the communities typically have no knowledge of how to or money with which to market the service. Too often, the purpose of the enterprise is to take business away from someone else, not to grow the business on its own merits. And, in truth, the airline often has little or no interest in (or knowledge of) marketing the service, and particularly in paying for any of it.

    Often local officials have never traveled themselves. The local chamber of commerce often has no interest as to how to look at all this on a community-wide basis, rather, only on how it will benefit their own company’s interest. The local airport authority often has little or no incentive to get fully involved because there may be little return to their budget. What they do know, is that there is always something to go wrong.

    Yikes!

  19. I fly to Columbus quite a bit for business and it may be the most under utilized airport in America. It really is a ghost town, which is odd considering that there are 6 Fortune 100 companies headquartered there, the Battelle Institute and Ohio State University (one of the largest, if not the largest college in the U.S.). So it’s not just picking Trenton, but the choice of destinations is intriguing too. CMH seems to be a very good choice.

  20. I think there may be a problem with operating too many daily departures from Trenton-Mercer and its not money related as much as facility related. Trenton-Mercer airport has just one gate.

  21. Parkway says:

    Bret,
    Were you aware that fellow fmr GWU people were behind this? Classmate of yours perhaps?

    See the end of this article-
    http://lawrenceville.patch.com/articles/frontier-airlines-announces-additional-passenger-routes-to-florida-new-orleans-from-trenton-mercer

    …and, even better, this one:
    http://www.theairlinezone.com/2012/11/trenton-airport/

    • CF says:

      Parkway – I took classes under Darryl (Airline Zone) and know him well. I also know Robert through airline circles but I don’t think I know Anthony. Maybe my memory is just going.

  22. E.G. says:

    Frontier just made an announcement yesterday it is laying off all of their employees not based in their hub in Denver. They don’t make enough as it is and now they are hiring cheaper labor companies to run them. I know Frontier employees that have been there in Philadelphia for years who passionately worked their butts off to get Trenton started since November only to hear that blow. But they made sure to tell them right AFTER mandatorying them for 11 hour days. Very sad.

  23. C.C says:

    Trenton does have a jet bridge. However Frontier does not use it (I don’t know why). The terminal is slated to be reconfigured by April when the new flights start up. Additionally, a new parking lot is being built to handle the increased passenger traffic. Flights out of TTN have been 90 to 95% full. I’m hoping Frontier remains successful in Trenton and that they further expand to other markets.

  24. Pingback: Frontier Brackets Philly With Wilmington Flights - >> The Cranky Flier

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