Frontier has been on a tear lately. In the last month, it has announced 13 new routes; 3 of them from what seems like an unlikely location, St Louis. Fresh with new ownership, it appears that the time for expansion has come, but can we expect St Louis to be the airline’s next focus city? I doubt it. Look closely and you’ll see that this is more than expansion. It’s actually a deliberate attempt to lower costs by flying airplanes harder.
A move to lower costs shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Frontier is aiming to be an ultra low cost carrier. And to do that, you need, uh, ultra low costs. There are a lot of ways to tackle costs, but one that helps a lot when you own new, expensive airplanes is to increase utilization of those aircraft. Frontier has a lot of new Airbuses, like Spirit, and the ownership costs are fixed. (Yes, there are more maintenance costs the more you fly those airplanes, but the actual cost of owning or leasing won’t really change.)
Because of that, the more you fly the airplanes, the more you can spread out those ownership costs over more flights. There’s an old saying that an airplane on the ground doesn’t make any money. Frontier is trying to change its scheduling so that it has as few airplanes on the ground for as little time as possible. So, how exactly is this going down? Glad you asked.
Frontier has built St Louis into a fairly large operation with flights to up to 10 cities depending upon the time of year. Most recently, it announced it would fly to Portland, San Francisco, and Trenton 3 times a week each. That may sound odd, but it’s really an opportunity to run these airplanes when they’re sitting around today.
This summer, Frontier has the usual couple of daily flights to Denver, but it also has a lot of airplanes flying south under its contract with Apple Vacations. There’s a daily flight to both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta with twice weekly flights to both Montego Bay and Punta Cana, all on behalf of Apple. (Frontier can sell seats on these flights on its own as well, but they’re flown under an Apple contract.) These airplanes all follow the same general schedule. They leave St Louis early in the morning so sun-seekers can arrive in time to spend the afternoon on the beach. Then the airplanes turn back around and get to St Louis again in the afternoon.
That Cancun flight gets back to St Louis at 114p, and then what? Then it just sits around for a long time. So instead, Frontier must have looked at the route map and said “where do we have opportunity to pick up some extra bucks here?” In the old days of cheap fuel, it was so cheap to run an airplane on an extra flight that you didn’t think twice. (That explains the America West Night Flight hub in Vegas. Nothing like flying Vegas to El Paso in the middle of the night.) But today, you have to find a route that has real potential to cover not just crew costs but also fuel.
Frontier looked at the aircraft time it had and picked San Francisco and Portland. Why not LA and Seattle? Well, LA has both Southwest and American on the route while Seattle has both Southwest and Alaska. There’s a little too much competition there right now. But Portland has no nonstops at all and San Francisco just has one on United that’s timed for a midday flight from San Francisco and an evening return. Frontier could provide something different in both markets.
Now, after that airplane arrives at 114p, it will turn right around at 245p and go to either Portland or San Francisco six days a week. Then it comes right back, getting in just before midnight, ready to start the next day’s flying back to the beach. No new airplanes required. It just requires using the existing airplanes to do more.
Meanwhile, Frontier has another couple airplanes that come in between 4p and 6p depending upon the day of the week. One of those airplanes, at least on three days a week, will leave at 610p, go to Trenton, and come back at 1105p. On a couple other days, it will go to Denver, to be fed back into the rest of the Frontier system for maintenance.
The end results is great news for St Louis. They get nonstops to places at times they wouldn’t have had otherwise. If you don’t live in St Louis and you see a Frontier airplane sitting around your local airport for long stretches, maybe you’ll get a new flight as well to a destination with potential. They seem to be doing what they can to keep those airplanes in the air where they belong.
[Original St Louis Arch photo via Shutterstock]