Southwest Bumps Up Denver Flying

Frontier, Southwest

I know I didn’t get to it last week, but I couldn’t let Southwest’s massive schedule change go by without at least a passing mention. For those who missed it, Southwest decided to cut 57 flights and add 40 new ones beginning May 10.08_01_15 wnzilla You math whizzes out there might notice that means they’re ending up with 17 fewer flights. I’d say that might be a good thing since demand has been lightening up.

If there’s one place that’s benefiting here, it’s Denver. The Mile High City will get 18 new flights including 15 to 6 brand new cities. Which cities, you ask? Well, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Raleigh/Durham, San Antonio, San Jose, and St Louis will all get nonstops. As you might have guessed, this is bad news for Frontier. They fly to five of those six cities, and they’re going to be hurting. Here’s a comparison with the number of flights offered on these new routes from Denver:

Southwest Frontier United
Los Angeles 5 7 11
Philadelphia 2 2 3
Raleigh/Durham 1 0 1
St. Louis 3 3 5
San Antonio 1 3 5
San Jose 3 3 6

As you can see, United clearly maintains a large schedule advantage, but Southwest and Frontier are pretty close. This is just on top of the markets Southwest has already launched in the last year or so that sit on top of Frontier. It looks like they’re going for the jugular here. Kind of funny to see an airline that was in the same position 30 years ago turn around and do it to someone else.

Obviously, to fly these new flights, they’ve had to get the planes from somewhere else. They haven’t actually cut a single route, but they’ve cut frequencies in a bunch of markets. Some of these are mostly inconsequential, like Las Vegas to Phoenix going from 18 to 17 flights a day, but some routes are getting cut in half. Orlando to Detroit, for example, goes from 2 flights per day to 1. Some of the cuts are seasonal, so for example, a lot of Florida markets get cut for the summer while the Pacific Northwest gains a couple.

Overall, it seems like a pretty good move on their part. I am curious about the Denver strategy, however. They either must be seeing something they like in the trends over there or they’ve decided that it’s time to go after their prey and hope that things improve if they’re successful.

If you’d like to see all the changes, check out this PDF.

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9 comments on “Southwest Bumps Up Denver Flying

  1. Hey CF – From a local’s perspective…

    12 years ago absolutely NO one would have been worried about competition hurting other airlines, because Denver was a fortress hub for United. The only discount fares were on the limited cities that Frontier flew – where United was obligated to match. Other than United’s gates most of the airport was empty and cavernous, with only other carriers 1-2 flights a day to their hubs.

    A “friend” of mine who was flying to Orange County every other month even did hidden city (paper) ticketing using ABQ and Kansas City with “connections” in Denver. The fares were about $240 versus almost $450 on DEN-SNA route. Insane.

    I think it’s great, but yeah I don’t how concerned to be for Frontier. Locally they are known as the “hometown airline,” even more so than United. So I don’t worry too much for Frontier and hope they can co-exist together. When time/fare matches my needs I think most in Denver would select Frontier over Southwest because they’ve done such a great job of branding themselves here over the years. Also Frontier has the advantages of a newer Airbus fleet with live TV – and also has a niche as a LCO with a large Mexico presence (a plus in the winter months.)

    Interesting balance though: Can a market have TOO much competition and be TOO cut-throat? As opposed to 12 years ago I now find DIA constantly crowded and it’s teeming with travelers. While annoying, it’s a sign of success – which is a good thing.

    I wrote a post recalling 1995-1999 – when Colorado Springs enjoyed high traffic and cheap fares for a brief period.

  2. Denver is finally reaping the rewards of it’s decision to build a megahub in the middle of nowhere. It was said “Denver was designed for 3 hubs, built for 2, and opened with one” It is now time for the naysayers to officially eat crow. Denver has three bonafide hubs, and that’s not counting significant codeshare “regional” airlines that have hub operations like Skywest, Mesa, Republic, and now Lynx.

    The result of this growth has been the reduction of it’s user fees to competitive levels. While airports such as ATL, ORD, and LAX are spending billions to modernize around 4 or 5 runways, Denver is sitting pretty with 6 runways and believe it or not, room for another 6 more!

    Southwest realizes that their aircraft will never wait for a runway here, will be able to grow indefinitely, and has chosen to seize the opportunity to take a bite of traffic out of what is now the 4th busiest airport in the nation.

    The previous poster is correct that frontier is in no immediate danger here, the two carriers are drawing from different markets.

    The real question is will DEN step up to the plate and add more gates in time to match demand. They will get an extra bonus if they fast track the train to downtown and get started on approving more runways.

    If you think ahead 10 years from now, it is easy to imagine DEN eclipsing DFW in traffic and attracting low cost international carriers that codeshare with Frontier and/or Southwest. In 25 years, it could rival ORD or ATL as the busiest airport in the US, exceeded only by some middle east monstrosity.

  3. I like your enthusiasm for the airport, and I would agree that it was built with plenty of room to grow, but I’m not as bullish on its future. The airport’s “greatness” doesn’t determine how many flights they get. It’s all about local demand; the city’s greatness.

    That’s why Denver has a very good number of flights, but I’d guess that it’s probably more than it needs in the long run. When I have time, I’ll try to pull up some numbers.

    I think Frontier should be scared, and even though I like them a lot, the overcapacity we’re seeing is going to put pressure on fares. Since Frontier has tried many times to diversify beyond Denver and failed, they go as Denver goes. And if the fares are really low, they’re going to be out of luck.

    Lynx is a good attempt to stay out of highly competitive markets (Southwest won’t touch them), but it has been a cash-drain so far, and that’s not what they need right now. Mexico is good as well, but they’ve been cutting back significantly on Mexico flying.

    I think there could be opportunity if another airline merger happens. It might give them to move in to a shrunk hub like Cincinnati or Memphis. But that’s all up in the air right now.

    If I’m Denver Airport, I wouldn’t expand just yet. I’d like to see what happens first.

  4. Pros: Denver is one of the few airports that can expand bar-none without dealing with neighborhood groups, NIMBY’s (of which I am one,) and misc. restrictions most communities would be faced with. Although we won’t see a D and E concourse anytime soon, a planned attached hotel and rail link (within six years,) will be a major benefit when completed.

    Cons: As CF said above nothing will happen if the demand isn’t there. Every few months I read about Denver wooing a non-stop Asia flight. But Denver just doesn’t have a large Asian community or the Far East ties to merit it. And some still consider Denver a town “surrounded by mountains and ski resorts,) and are fearful to connect in the winter. (Last winter for good reason.) Back in the day when Denver billed itself as “The country’s largest airport” critics said “That’s like putting one refrigerator in a convention center and calling it the world’s largest appliance store.” Just because we can fly to Asia in July or land the A380 here doesn’t mean people want to.

    Regarding expansion: My prediction is that a second/alternate airport will be in view before major expansion of DEN ever happens:

    Having used the Colorado Springs airport as my alternative back in the late 90s, I think most Denver residents would agree it’s just too inconvenient to access: small man pass, through a city then miles of arterials.

    BUT – The Fort Collins/Loveland airport is only 50 miles up the interstate from downtown, and Allegiant already has charter flights there. Fort Collins is practically a suburb of Denver now, and the northern Colorado market has grown enormously in the past 10 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if other airlines started point to point service from FNL to the west coast and/or midwest.

    Also similar to LAX vs. Long Beach distances- the Front Range Airport (FTG) is located literally in the back yard of DEN. Even though it’s past the DEN airport freeway by 10 miles, it’s very easy to access, but would still need a bit of construction (terminal/runways) to accommodate pax flights.

    I read this last fall when Skybus was chatting up new cities.

    It would seem odd to have a secondary so close – But maybe regular flights with a shuttle to DEN might be in the cards someday. This airport has the space, it’s in the country, and Adams county would love it. (Didn’t Hawthorne airport want to be a feeder to LAX at one point?)

  5. I appreciate the replys and the healthy discussion. Skybus to Front Range would be a joke. It is not that Front Range is close to DIA, it is in sight of it! I did my flight training at FTG, I know the terminal well, and I can tell you that there isn’t enough room in there for the passengers of a A319 and certainly no room for parking. COS is more likely a secondary/reliever, but low volume keeps their costs similar to DEN. I am surprised that Skybus is not considering Fort Collins/Loveland. Northern Colorado is booming economically, it is only 45 minutes from Denver, and offers free parking. Allegiant is currently the only carrier there w/ service to LAS.

    My prediction is that Frontier grows slowly at DEN and continues to focus on Mexico and Latin America. They will need either an international codeshare partner or perhaps they will merge or be acquired. Southwest will expand to approximately the same size as their LUV, MDW, or LAS hubs, focusing mostly on connecting and leisure traffic. Over time, they will slowly grow their local market. I don’t think Southwest is capturing a large share of the market from Denver now. I don’t know anyone here who has flown them, and I hardly see any advertisements in local media.

    United will still cater to FF addicts and essentially use DEN as a transcon reliever to overcrowded ORD. Eventually, they should use DEN to relieve international connecting traffic from ORD as well. Look for United partner and 787 launch customer ANA to utilize their 787s later this year or next year to connect to DEN. The 787 seems custom designed for this route. Sure, their isn’t and enormous Asian population in Denver, but connecting traffic to tourist sites, and connections to the Eastern US are plentiful.

    Finally, Denver is a great airport, if you are a pilot, an airline, or even a connecting passenger. It still has a long way to go if you are an O/D passenger. It needs the train to the airport, streamlined check in facilities and some improvements to the people mover system. That is where COS or even Fort Collins could nibble at the edges of the DEN origination market.

  6. CF – long time reader, first time poster.

    As a hotel guy I need to point out that the one thing not mentioned regarding Denver future airline passenger demand is the recent positioning of the city as a major convention destination. With the convention center expansion in December 2004 and then the opening of the 1,100 room Hyatt Regency convention center hotel in 2005, Denver has now become a major force competing for national conventions. Not on par with Vegas, Chicago or Orlando, but competitive with other major cities. 2008 will break all records for convention demand in the city, highlighted by the Democratic convention in August. With the opening of the city’s first Ritz Carlton last week, the city has taken a further step repositioning itself from a ‘cow town’ to a major national leisure destination.

    Also, with the economy of Denver still slanted toward the oil/gas industry, although not nearly like the 1980s, this is probably a good region of the country for Southwest orient towards during a possible recession. Certainly the Denver economy has better near term prospects than Detriot or even possibly Florida, given the real estate fiasco in that state.

  7. This is all really good conversation, guys. Here are a couple of my thoughts . . .

    James – Front Range seems like a very bad idea, but as you and JS suggest, Ft Collins could be a strong alternate. COS can relieve in the south as well. I remember when WestPac started up and they took plenty of traffic from people looking for cheap fares. But Front Range is too close and will just screw up traffic patterns, I’d guess.

    I don’t think Hawthorne wanted to be a feeder for LAX, but I do remember a plan to actually connect the two with a taxiway and use Hawthorne as part of LAX! That would have been ridiculous of course, but it shows how close they are.

    JS – I agree that they will focus on building Mexico and Latin because that’s where they can hide from Southwest. That’s why we’ll probably also see some good growth at Lynx in the small cities that Southwest 737s won’t serve.

    I disagree that Southwest will focus on connecting and leisure traffic. They’re going to want that local business passenger, and all their latest efforts point in that direction. Think about the new boarding, their ads, etc. They want the businessperson. I’m sure they can take the non-frequent fliers from United, because nobody wants to be stuck in Economy Minus with 31″ pitch on United. But can they take from Frontier? They’ll have a harder time in the local originating market, but they can do better in the spokes – people traveling to Denver. They’ll definitely put pressure on fares, even if they aren’t taking a ton of traffic, and that’s not good for Frontier.

    I agree that the 787 can only be good for DEN. DEN-Tokyo should be a given . . . for ANA since United has no plans to get 787s right now. But for ANA that would be a good route.

    Larry – Glad to hear you’ve been reading, and thanks for putting the comment up. That’s a good point about conventions. Those are a lot of people coming in to Denver that don’t have any Frontier loyalty but probably have Southwest or United loyalty.

    Will there be enough to spread around? I just can’t see that being the case, but there’s definitely good growth there. It’s a nice time to be a Denver resident.

    BTW, if you want a really sweet deal, check out Southwest’s latest credit card promotion:
    You get a free ticket with your first purchase.

  8. Denver hosts the Democratic National Convention in August. The eyes of the world will be on this city.
    Southwest will have the capacity to handle travel to in the months leading into.

    Previous poster above is correct that Denver is becomming a convention city, hence the schedule changes.

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