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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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