Frontier has been slowly working on its transition from a traditional kind of airline into a more point-to-point-focused ultra low cost carrier (ULCC). This has been far from smooth-sailing as travelers have needed to adjust to the new reality of the airline. At the same time, there have been some missteps (particularly the rocky switch to outsourced customer service that seems to have calmed down now). But one of the hallmarks of a ULCC is the ability to squeeze people in. Frontier is doing that with brand new seats, and these seats have some creative features. This is all part of Frontier’s effort to be, as Frontier’s SVP of Commercial Daniel Shurz told me in an interview, “a positively differentiated airline compared to our ultra low cost competitors.”
First, I should clarify that there are actually two types of seats on each airplane. Frontier has its regular seating and it has Stretch seating, both made by Acro Aircraft. While Stretch used to just be all about legroom, it now is an entirely different seat with more cushioning, bigger tray tables, recline, and more comfort over all. The Stretch seat looks like this.
Stretch costs $15 to $50 per direction for a domestic nonstop flight, and it’s basically getting you close to what JetBlue gives everyone today in terms of personal space. But Frontier is a ULCC, so of course, its basic offering is going to be far less than that. What does that look like?
From the front, this just looks like a regular seat. Seat pitch is now down to 28 inches, though since these are slimline seats, the legroom is the equivalent to what you’d get on a traditional 30 inch pitch seat. Not much. But hey, people want cheap fares, and this is the way to make that happen. At least Frontier has an affordable option to pay for something better.
But there are a couple really interesting things to consider with this seat. First of all, it’s wider than most, and it’s even wider in the middle. Most seats are made to fit either a 737 or an A320 family aircraft, but a 737 is narrower. So usually you find seats in the 17 to 17.2 inch range at most on those airplanes. The A320 can handle wider seats, and Delta is actually in the process of moving to an 18 inch seat there. Frontier is not only putting 18 inch seats in, but it’s giving the middle seat an extra inch above that. It’ll now be just over 19 inches wide, a full 2 inches wider than what you’ll find on Southwest or most other airlines. That’s a big difference.
I asked why Frontier didn’t just split it up into 3 equal parts and make each seat a third of an inch wider. Daniel responded, “we wouldn’t be talking about it today if we did that.” in other words, a third of an inch doesn’t really impact the experience much, whereas an extra inch in the middle does matter.
Whether travelers will actually notice the inch or not remains to be seen, but what they most definitely will notice is the goofy-looking tiny tray table. Look at this thing.
Frontier went for simplicity here. You might be able to see that there’s no arm extending the tray out toward you. The arms are fixed, so the tray really just flips up and down. This helps to keep things simple and means that trays are unlikely to break as much, but man, that is one tiny tray table. What about people who want to use laptops? Well, Daniel had a good point on that.
Inflight service comes with drinks and a la carte snacks. A drink, a mixer, and a snack can fit. A 10-inch tablet can fit. You can have a full size tray table, but the idea that you can practically use a laptop in that space is unrealistic. Rather than create that impression, we set it up realistically.
And that is a good point. I’ve never successfully used a laptop on a tray table in a slimline seat, even with pitch a couple inches beyond Frontier’s seat. My best hope is to use T-Rex arms and wedge it into my lap. So there really isn’t a need for a full size tray table if you don’t have room to do anything. Daniel was sure to point out that in the Stretch seats, where there is enough room for a laptop, there is a full size tray table. That makes sense.
I also noticed that the seatback pocket was kept low on this seat whereas many slimline operators have been putting those hard shells at the top of the seat to give more legroom. But again, Frontier went simple here. It still uses a mesh pocket, but it’s a small one. It has room for the safety card and a barf bag but not much more. You can’t put your own stuff in there unless it’s small so it doesn’t impact legroom. At the same time, it gives you more headroom.
These seats also don’t recline. Or, to use the trendy term, they are “pre-reclined.” That is technically true since they aren’t in that standard upright position. And as Daniel notes, “I think the majority of customers don’t actually recline in their seats.” So for those people, this will be more comfortable. For those who like to recline, it’s less comfortable. But again, Stretch seats have the usual recline option so there’s always that option to pay for more.
The new seats first rolled out on an A320 in February of this year, and all A320s are now done. The A319s only have 7 done, but the project is scheduled to be completed in September. What’s remarkable is that the A319s now have 150 seats on them. Back in the day when Frontier was struggling to find its place, it offered great legroom and had only 132 seats onboard. There wasn’t even any extra legroom seating, so this is an enormous change. The days of Live TV are gone as well, as that’s being removed. Frontier is studying wifi, but Daniel was quick to point out that they’ve yet to “find anyone who is able to come up with economics that work for us.”
What do people think about all these changes? Apparently they don’t think much. Daniel says there’s been less feedback than they expected, and the feedback they do get has been “on balance, close to neutral.” That’s probably good news here.
Looking at this from the big picture perspective, I like what Frontier is doing. It provides a cheap, no frills option for those who want it, but there’s also a more traditional experience available for not much more money. Let people decide what they want.