Many Carriers Have Failed at Washington/Dulles But Frontier’s Effort is Different

When Frontier announced it would be opening a focus city at Washington’s Dulles Airport, skeptics laughed. Low cost carriers and Dulles don’t mix. The graveyard is full of failed efforts, so why would anyone want to try it? Well, what Frontier is doing is different than what the others have done before and the timing is better. I think this is a worthwhile effort.

Frontier to Dulles

Before we get into the comparisons to past failures, let’s talk about what exactly Frontier is doing. The airline is going to be starting 14 routes from Dulles. The first group starts the week of August 19, and the ramp-up is done by the middle of September. This might sound like the airline is popping up a hub overnight, but it’s not that big. No route will see more than one flight per day.

Of course, this will be run on the ultra low fare model that Frontier has adopted, but low fares aren’t the only thing attractive about this service. Frontier will operate off the Z gates, the ones attached to the main terminal. That means no mobile lounges or underground trains to get to far away gates. Oh, and these gates are actually pretty nice, especially compared to what United runs from its decrepit “temporary” midfield terminal.

Here are the cities that will gain service.

  • Atlanta – 6 per week
  • Charlotte – 5 per week
  • Chicago/O’Hare – 6 per week
  • Cincinnati – 4 per week
  • Detroit – 6 per week
  • Ft Lauderdale – 4 per week
  • Ft Myers – 4 per week
  • Las Vegas – 4 per week
  • Memphis – 4 per week
  • Minneapolis/St Paul – 6 per week
  • Orlando – Daily
  • St Augustine (FL) – 5 per week
  • St Louis – 3 per week
  • Tampa – 4 per week

That’s a good mix of big city routes and strong leisure destinations. If you didn’t see the frequencies being operated, you might think this was a suicidal invasion of United’s turf. But it’s not. As mentioned, no route is operated more than once per day, and only one, Orlando, operates that often. You can’t even count on a regular schedule with times shifting each day, as required to keep airplanes flying and costs low.

For example, that key United hub-to-hub route of Dulles to O’Hare? On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it leaves Dulles at 7a but on Tuesdays and Thursdays it leaves at 445p. Saturdays? It leaves at 150p. This is not a business schedule. It’s sort of like running Allegiant’s schedule on a Spirit-style network.

Spirit doesn’t have a lot of frequencies in the markets it flies, but it does tend to keep times consistent. And it will often have a couple flights per day to give a little more coverage. It prefers big city markets that have room for lower fares, like what Frontier is doing. Allegiant, on the other hand, picks markets mostly with no competition. It varies times greatly depending upon what fits the operation. Frontier is looking like an interesting hybrid.

I know, I’m talking about this and have yet to mention the “I” word. Independence. Everyone remember Independence Air? For those who don’t, this long-dead airline used to be United Express-partner Atlantic Coast Airlines (ACA). ACA and United couldn’t come to terms on a new regional flying deal, so those running ACA decided to go out on their own. It was a really, really bad idea.

Fortunately for Frontier, these two airlines are absolutely nothing alike. Independence had a big old fleet of 50-seat jets that it thought would be great for a low-cost operation. Yeah, right. It tried to maintain the frequencies it flew when it operated as United Express, but United found new regional partners to step in and fill the void under the United Express banner. That meant each market had twice the capacity it had before, and of course, United fought Independence like crazy. It matched fares, offered frequent flier promotions, and simply refused to let Independence up for air. People loved Independence for lowering fares, but they chose United at those fares so they could earn miles.

I think my favorite example of the insanity at Independence was Lansing, Michigan. I can’t remember exactly, but it was something like 7 daily flights in that market. Crazy. Eventually Independence did get some A319s and started longer haul flying. That might have had a better shot at success, but the airline was too saddled with junk. It was toast.

Since that time, several airlines have tried a build-up at Dulles. JetBlue had big plans when it started, but it has done nothing but shrink there. By the end of this year, it will be down to 4 daily flights to Boston and 2 to JFK. That’s it. Virgin America also seemed like it might be interested, but it hasn’t grown beyond its LAX and San Francisco flights. What happened?

Well, a lot of things. First, both Virgin America and JetBlue have been able to get improved access to Washington/National. That has always been the prize for airlines that want to attract the business traveler. And both JetBlue and Virgin America may act like low fare carriers, but they really want to grow their share of the corporate market these days.

Even in leisure markets, JetBlue has found better traction at highly-restricted National. On the other hand, there’s Spirit. Spirit left National for Baltimore because National was too expensive and Spirit couldn’t build a more efficient operation there due to slot constraints. With Spirit in Baltimore, that left more opportunity for a true low fare carrier down in Northern Virginia.

Sure, many people around the District may choose to fly out of National, but there is a huge and growing population that prefers Dulles. I have a good friend from college who lives in Fairfax and takes her husband and daughter to see her family in Chicago. They used to love Independence for the low fares, and my guess is that they’ll flock to Frontier as well. That’s the kind of traveler Frontier wants.

But won’t United try to crush Frontier like a bug, as it did with Independence? I’d be surprised. Unlike Independence, Frontier is coming in with a clearly leisure-oriented schedule that’s not going to appeal to United’s business traveler base. And United is feeling a lot of heat right now from Wall St. It isn’t performing nearly as well as the other guys, and there’s a lot of pressure to increase revenues. An overblown attack in some pretty big markets would hurt that effort a lot. It would also be ridiculed. Besides, United has bigger issues in Washington right now, including the loss of US Airways as a Star Alliance partner. It should be worried about its base, not a fringe carrier.

I would think that we’d see a response similar to what we see United doing to Spirit in Chicago. Not much.

The question is simple. Are there enough people in the general vicinity around Dulles who want cheap fares? Probably. Will they fly Frontier? Possibly. Can Frontier get its costs low enough to be profitable at the fares it can sell? I guess we’ll find out. But Frontier’s effort is different than what we’ve seen before, and I’m fairly bullish on it.

[Dulles photo By Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons, Frontier aircraft photo By Magic Aviation [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

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53 Comments on "Many Carriers Have Failed at Washington/Dulles But Frontier’s Effort is Different"

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James Burke
Guest

What’s the deal with O’Hare? DEN, TTN, ILG, MDT and TYS all go to Midway. Why the oddball operation at ORD?

noahkimmel
Member

Frontier does serve ORD as an apple vacation charter. From what I understand, flight used to re-position from MDW. Perhaps this is a more efficient flow with this new schedule.

B757capt
Guest

Rumor is that they have been in negotiations with AA for the two gates they are required to divest at ORD.

***
Guest

I live in Lansing, Mich and remember Independence at the airport, I think at one time they may have had as many as 11 flights a day to Washington (not sure on that) anyway it was unsustainable and made no sense.

We now have Sun Country doing one flight a day to Reagan National six days a week, that was a hard fought battle over the landing slots and involved a lot of behind the scenes politics to get it. A more reasonable flight schedule for the size of the market.

George
Guest

What suprised me in the annoucement-no flight(s) to DEN. I think that supports Cranky’s assesment that UA won’t do much about this. The Z gates-they’re nice and just a short walk from the terminal. As for describing UA’s gates as decrepit-you’re being nice Cranky-they are a slum, not to mention you have a haul in an underground tunnel ftrom the train station to the gates.

Bill from DC
Guest

describing UA’s IAD terminal as a slum is an insult to slums throughout the world!

Dan
Guest
While F9 made a smart move by grabbing some Z gates, they may have a marketing issue on their hands. I’m not sure how many people are familiar with them, I sure am not. (And I live 7 miles from the airport.) A/B/C/D? Yup, I know those. And I associate them with all being a pain in the ass to get to. While the Z gates might save some time, they still have to share the central security piers that all of the terminals do. It’s one of the reasons I hate IAD. (The only reason I like it is… Read more »
Bill from DC
Guest

i think people will discover the convenience of the Z gates once they have flown. it probably won’t be a competitive differentiator at first but might help them attract repeat business. i think they will be happy to market this service to the general public on price, price and price.

CF/others – did US give up the Z gates to move out with AA? did they still have their service on Z? they did when i flew US out of IAD last but, living in the district, i try to make that as infrequently as possible.

George
Guest

As of last month when I did my monthly bag drag to DEN, US was still on Z. I guess they will move out to B to be with AA, but with 5 gates on Z, and US only flying 6 flights a day to CLT, I don’t think crowding would be an issue

Dan
Guest
CF, Re: ACA/Independence Air. I worked for ACA prior to the Indy days, and the one thing I can say I learned from all of that is that regional airline flying isn’t a sustainable long term endeavor. ACA’s problem wasn’t that they “couldn’t come to terms” on a new contract so to speak, but more so that UA wanted to ditch their contract during bankruptcy. Regional flying is pretty cuthroat, and it’s pretty easy to find someone else to do the flying cheaper. Never mind it’s the same pilots doing it with a different name on the paycheck for significantly… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

What Frontier is going to do doesn’t seem big enough for United to care.

Bill from DC
Guest
IIRC B6 was planning to gear up a significant IAD operation just about the same time that ACA/independence embarked on its kamikaze mission. wanting no part of the coming bloodshed, B6 put all their non-JFK apples in the BOS basket. would love to know what they would have done at IAD if not for that insanity. i was still surprised to see them take down the longtime LGB and OAK transcons especially without any real prospect of getting those restarted at DCA. at this point, they might as well not even be at IAD. and, while i’m glad B6 is… Read more »
Alex B.
Guest
IAD still has a lot of potential for an airline like B6 or VX. Even with both of those grabbing extra slots at DCA, IAD has the opportunity to scale that DCA simply does not. The challenge is in achieving critical mass; and I don’t think splitting a relatively small operation between IAD and DCA makes a lot of sense. F9’s approach here seems reasonable and definitely has potential to work well. It might actually play in UA’s favor if additional traffic and landing fees help bring IAD’s costs down a bit – more business for MWAA helps make a… Read more »
Sanjeev M
Guest
I remember coming back home once on a SAN-IAD redeye operated by B6. That’s the only time I’ve flown B6 and it was great. Unfortunate that B6 couldn’t make anything work well at IAD. Apparently the A319’s that Independence got for the West Coast routes were doing well, it’s just the CASM on the 50 seaters doesn’t work as we all commonly know now. I understand that DEN-DCA is one of Frontier’s high-performing routes so that may be why DEN-IAD isn’t happening among other reasons. I think UA will respond to this IAD operation with some of those E175’s and… Read more »
Aaron
Guest

Cranky, any idea if Frontier will cut routes elsewhere to allocate aircraft to IAD?

Ron
Guest

Too bad Frontier gave up their LGB slots a few years ago — LGB–IAD would have made sense now, especially with JetBlue dropping the route.

Spirit FF
Member

Frontier would still be in LGB if it weren’t for their HORRIBLE schedule. From LGB to DEN they had a 0645 and an 1100. The 1100 was a turn, but it only ran 2 or 3 days a week. Unfortunately, since it was the turn, it was an 0830 dep from DEN, and the RON left DEN at about 1930. I could never get a morning flight into LGB, so I had to fly into LAX or SNA. If that morning turn ran at least 6 days a week, theeir loads would have been better.

robert.rolwing
Member
I agree with ALL of you about UA’s DECREPIT C and D concourse—I have asked over and over again to UA top management,about when a new C and D concourse will be built, AND NOT SURPRISED-NO ANSWER I am a 20yr employee of UA ,and LOVE IAD, but soooo ashamed of the C and D concourse I can only hope something is coming soon ,since the company built the new widebody hangar,to fix aircraft quickly and reduce delays also, UA-or realy UAX had a monopoly on the CVG-IAD route ,with no competition ,[DL stopped service,and only competes with the new… Read more »
Ron
Guest

Frontier is not trying to replace Delta at Cincinnati. They’re just complementing Amtrak’s thrice weekly Cardinal…

JBM
Guest
Not sure what/why the cheapshot reference is to the A319/320. For a passenger, you get 18″ seats vs. 17 or 17-1/2″ seats on the 737. The way Frontier has configured many of the rows on their Airbus aircraft, passengers can get up to 36″ of legroom versus 31-32″ in standard coach. Since the demise of Midwest Airlines and “Signature Seating” (first-class style seats and better than coach legroom), Frontier is my choice when I have to travel coach. (Now, if the complaint is about how United configures the A319/320 rather than the aircraft itself, that’s another story.)
Davywavy
Member

“one Cincinnati business traveler said Frontier’s schedual is a joke,because it does not realy help the business flyer too much-‘

Frontier doesn’t generally schedule for the business travellers – they’re not the target market.

Some business people do fly Frontier, generally those on a tight budget or even paying their own way, and they make the Frontier schedules work for them.

If not, it if doesn’t work, there are other airlines.

Dale
Guest

I was and am sorry that Independence Air did not make it. I flew Independence once; in 2005 PWM-IAD IAD-BNA and thought the inflight service was superior to anyone (for economy class) with the possible exception of Jet Blue.

jaybru
Member
Everytime I take the mobile lounge to the D gates of UA’s “temporary” C/D terminal, when I get off, I am forever reminded of Hap Pareti’s Presidential Airlways hub opening up right there in front of me. American tried to cover over everthing, but the ghosts of airlines past are still there, at least for oldies like me. After Presidential’s demise, I, smart person that I am, bought some stock in Atlantic Coast/Independence Air and attended shareholder meetings with the nice/polite execs explaining how they were going to make a go of everything. You’ll be sorry, UA. The naivety of… Read more »
Ben
Guest
You are trying to portray Frontier’s inflight service as inferior to UA. I don’t see it, with the exception of UA’s F cabin. Anyone who wants to can easily pay the little bit more for the Classic Plus fare, which is refundable, allows Economy Plus-style seating, a bag, a carryon, and an alcoholic beverage at no extra charge. My parents are flying Frontier out of Trenton this summer. What convinced them? They asked me the difference between Frontier and US, and I replied “Frontier has 737-sized aircraft with economy plus available for $15/person. USAir flies the route with 50 seat… Read more »
JBM
Guest

I agree. No, I don’t own stock in Frontier, but I would rather travel coach in Frontier than coach on other carriers, and if I can get their Classic Plus seats, even better. It’s an insult to even lump Frontier with Sprit. The only thing in common is Frontier’s move to a-la-carte pricing; Frontier is a much more civilized way to fly.

chris
Member

Interesting to watch how nimble Frontier has been in taking advantage of opportunities…Trenton, Cleveland, the availability of the Z gates at IAD…

It’s also ironic given the discussion here about the “temporary” C/D Concourse at IAD that I believe it was constructed to allow United to de-hub Cleveland in 1987…and still operating when United de-hubbed CLE a second time!

davidp627
Member
It will be interesting to see if IAD will supplant BWI as the busiest of the three airports. To counter an earlier comment, BWI gets its fair share of business travel and is only 5 miles further from downtown DC than IAD. Granted, the Metro extension will shorted the distance, however, BWI has nice access via the MARC train. I think it is interesting to note that SWA could have offered many of the same flight pairs if it had chosen to do so. They’ve essentially abandoned IAD. I’ve never flown Frontier and can’t speak to the experience, customer service,… Read more »
Ben in DC
Guest

SWA hasn’t abandoned IAD. They never have had much of an operation there. At last check, they offer the same destinations they did when they started flying here – ORD or DEN, that’s it.

Davywavy
Member
Southwest started IAD with more than that – they had Chicago Midway (seven daily), Las Vegas (one daily), Orlando (two daily), and Tampa Bay (two daily). http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/southwest-airlines-does-dulles-airline-announces-fares-and-flights-for-newest-destination-56026422.html Initially, they did not offer nonstops to DEN, and recently made it clear that if they can ever get “beyond perimeter” slots for DCA-DEN, they’s what they really want. I think the difference may be – as I understand it – that Frontier doesn’t see IAD as a surrogate for DCA/BWI, just as it doesn’t see TTN as a surrogate for PHL. Yes, there may be some bleed from PHL to TTN, but… Read more »
davidp627
Member

You could be right. Frontier is probably counting on a significant amount of Northern VA O&D traffic on the routes selected, much of it siphoned from UA.

Dale
Guest

I think what your seeing is at least in part a strategic jockeying (planning) by Frontier Airlines at Dulles in advance of the new metro Silver line (or whatever they decide to call it) spur which will connect Dulles Airport to the entire Washington D.C. metro train system which is schedule to open in 2016. It is suppose to be huge with departures from Dulles every six minutes. The article does mention Frontier has prime gate space in the main terminal. Mr. Franke is an prior Army infantry officer and trained in strategy.

davidp627
Member

I think that the Metro expansion to IAD will be a factor, but it’s not the end all and be all. Traveling to the airport in that way will appeal to some, but not everyone, especially if you have to change trains, lug a lot of luggage, etc. And, depending on where you are coming from, it could be time consuming.

Dale
Guest

When we fly into DCA we usually catch the yellow line at DCA to Metro Center and switch to the Red Line and ride it out the last stop at Shady Grove. At the wrong times of day the Metro is faster.

tharanga
Guest

for DCA, sure.

but the ride on the Silver Line to DC (or Maryland) is going to take a long time.

anyway – Cranky, that is a hilarious picture.

David van den Berg
Guest
Just curious, as a Northern Virginia resident with parents in St. Louis, what the growth potential for this operation is, and what the chance of United cutting 50 seat RJ flights between Dulles and markets like St. Louis, Cincinnati, etc is. How much value does United get running connecting passengers from those places though Dulles instead of Chicago or Newark? What role does Dulles play in United’s system relative to those two hubs? I took advantage of the introductory sale to get a $94 roundtrip ticket to spend some quality time with mom and dad in November, and would be… Read more »
Davywavy
Member
A semi-educated guess suggests the basic strategy has been laid down with the first routes – a crafty mix of (almost) guaranteed “good” routes – anywhere in Florida – together with some less obvious ones, such as MEM and maybe even STL. There are some missing links – DEN, obviously, CLE and the West Coast, and New England is entirely missing from the Frontier route map – but I assume they’ll come eventually. I was slightly surprised that there has been no move (so far) to add any international (as in south of the border) routes – IAD-CUN, for example… Read more »
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