Frontier’s New Plan Shrinks the Midwest, Grows Colorado


Frontier has been moving on its plan to reinvent itself very quickly, and last week it rolled out some big changes that will fall into place over the next few months. In short, the old Midwest Airlines hubs are shrinking while it grows its presence in Colorado where competitors aren’t. This airline is going to look very different by the end of this year.

Frontier Loses Midwestern Weight

The news sounded great when the first announcement came out with a bunch of new routes from Denver and Colorado Springs. But all new routes need airplanes, and they have to come from somewhere The next day it was announced that many of the Milwaukee and Kansas City routes were gone. These changes all fall into distinct categories, in my eyes. Here’s how I see it.

Filling the AirTran Hole
Of the five new Denver routes that Frontier is rolling out, two have a common theme – they’re former AirTran cities. With the merger proceeding, Southwest is pulling AirTran out of smaller cities, and Frontier is seizing the day. We already saw it when the airline replaced AirTran on the Knoxville – Orlando route, and now we’re seeing it again.

Frontier will start flights from Denver to Bloomington/Normal (IL) and Harrisburg (PA). These cities had AirTran service into Florida and into the airline’s Atlanta hub, but now they’ve lost all low cost service into a hub city. Frontier sees an opportunity to step in, even if it’s a dramatically different hub. Bloomington will be four times a week and Harrisburg three times, so it’s not a huge risk.

Skirting Southwest in Denver
Those two former AirTran cities also share something in common with the other three new Frontier routes. They’re all small cities, and that’s what Frontier is banking on to succeed in Denver. After all, United and Southwest have broad coverage and Southwest is only going to keep growing its presence. So what can Frontier do? It can look for other places where Southwest won’t be able to serve with its business model.

Frontier will start four weekly flights to Cedar Rapids (IA), four weekly flights to Great Falls (MT), and a daily flight to Bellingham (WA). These are cities that Southwest is unlikely to ever serve unless it decides to open up its business model. Considering the moves we’ve seen Southwest make with AirTran (small cities = goodbye), that change isn’t coming anytime soon.

The Ghosts of Western Pacific
While the Denver adds seem smart, many appear to be thrown for a loop by Frontier’s decision to start flying from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, and Seattle. This is a somewhat risky move, but it’s worth a shot.

This might sound like shades of Western Pacific back in the 1990s. That airline started up with a hub in Colorado Springs and offered low fare service around the US. (I even flew it a couple of times back and forth to college.) It eventually moved the hub to Denver, attempted to merger with Frontier, and ultimately failed miserably. What’s different now?

First, Frontier isn’t going in with a lot of capacity. Only Phoenix is daily while the rest are 3 to 6 times per week. Believe it or not, even US Airways doesn’t fly to Phoenix from Colorado Springs, but Frontier thinks that it can make things work with this low frequency option. A fair number of people drive the short distance from Colorado Springs up to Denver to take advantage of cheap fares and frequent flights. Frontier is betting that enough people would rather stick to Colorado Springs, so it can steal passengers who might fly Southwest and United out of Denver otherwise. This didn’t work for Frontier in Long Beach (trying to take passengers from other airlines at Orange County and LAX), but that doesn’t mean it can’t work here.

Still, this seems like the riskiest of the moves so far, but we’re only talking about a couple of flights per day to start so it’s a good test. Besides, it’s probably better than what those airplanes are doing now . . .

Death of the Cookie, Again
So where are all these airplanes coming from? Other routes are getting the axe. Milwaukee loses service to Dallas, Grand Rapid, Kansas City, Newark, Philly, and Phoenix. That leaves just 18 daily flights. In the end, Milwaukee will likely see flights to Denver, Vegas, New York/LaGuardia, Washington/National, and some Florida/Mexico. I imagine it’s just a matter of time until all the smaller markets like Nashville on down are gone.

Kansas City loses Houston, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and yes, Milwaukee. There are only 13 daily flights left there. I imagine that we’ll see Denver, Washington/National, and Florida/Mexico flights survive there in the end.

Ditching the Props
Another route-ending that might catch some by surprise is Denver to Aspen. Why is that going? Because Aspen is served only with Q400 props, and Frontier is finally retiring those after a few false starts. That route simply has to go if the Q400s go away. It’s hardly worth keeping those airplanes for just one route, especially as the airline strives to be an ultra low cost carrier.

The odd man out here is San Antonio. It doesn’t fit into any category but it will lose its only Frontier flights to Denver. This route must simply have underperformed so Frontier is pulling the plug.

In the end, this is a lot of change in a very short amount of time. I think most of it makes sense to try, though I will be surprised if everything works. That’s another hallmark of ultra low cost carriers – try a bunch of new routes and quickly walk away if they don’t work out. I expect that’s how we’ll see Frontier operate going forward.

[Original photo via Flickr user cliff1066™/CC 2.0]

46 comments on “Frontier’s New Plan Shrinks the Midwest, Grows Colorado

  1. I have noticed in the past week or so that Frontier has done a couple of flights
    to Cedar Rapids from Lansing, Mich. but there has been no official announcements
    from the airport about adding flights to this destination. Could these be a couple of “trial” runs? Lansing is a small airport but has never had Airtran service.

    1. My guess is that it could be positioning as well. Republic operates for a lot of other airlines. Could have been meant to position for another.

  2. There’s also a lot of Apple Vacations flying they’re picking up from FL.
    MKE-BOS is being cut, so only MCI-BOS remains for BOS. I see Frontier in plenty more Midwestern markets like SBN. COS may work cause of the Frontier reputation in Colorado. They still fly COS-DEN several times a day. Apparently ASE was pretty profitable, but someone had to make the decision to not keep the props. Could they contract this one route out to someone?

    I’m too young to know Western Pacific, but from what I hear it wasn’t a great idea having a hub in COS.

    Imagine if F9 also applied for DCA exemptions, not to DEN but somewhere else. Maybe same plane DCA-COS-PDX would satisfy Oregon congressmen and serve actual government demand.

    I’m liking this David Siegel so far :)

  3. COS can make sense, especially in the winter here. The Monument Hill pass can be very tricky from Sept-May, give or take. I’ve actually flown DEN-COS for business because of the weather forecasts for the pass and the one time I drove that in the winter it was an 8 hour drive from COS to Boulder, most of that just getting over the pass.

  4. Frontier / Republic is the polar opposite of American Airlines. Frontier is trying everything it can to find a profitable niche; and reinventing itself in the process. American did little, hoping to be bailed out by rising costs at the competition.

    Two of the most profitable airlines in this country are Allegiant and Spirit. I think Frontier’s smart to emulate that business model. It seems to work. Frontier’s former model wasn’t working too well. And insanity is often defined as continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.

    If nothing else, these are interesting times in the airline industry. And I have to give Republic’s management kudos for being proactive.

  5. To me, this looks like the final death of the Midwest Airlines system. I feel sorry for the MKE folks. Of course, had Midwest’s CEO allowed the sale to Airtran to go forward, they still would have faced the problem of Southwest buying Airtran. Sometimes you just got rotten, stinking luck.

    Surprised to see the death of the Q400. Old Frontier management has touted this as a cheap way to serve small Rocky Mountain destinations. The Q400 is apparently A LOT cheaper to operate with sky-high fuel costs, so I’m surprised it doesn’t have a role in the new Frontier.

    COS makes sense to me as there should logically be a market there for folks not wanting to drive to DEN. Less competition is always a good thing for an airline — at least if you’re offering service that customers want.

    I still don’t know what happens to Frontier because they also have the misfortune of too many competitors in DEN. Southwest may be “beatable” there, but it’s not easy to take on both Southwest and United — especially when DEN is not the most economic hub to start with.

    1. I think the Republic management is allergic to turboprops :) The decision to eliminate them came from Indianapolis, not Denver.

      Note that some of Frontier’s new management talent came from Allegiant so I would expect them to move in that direction even more so. I wonder why F9 did not add COS-Las Vegas a few times a week, given that Las Vegas is one of the largest leisure destinations in the West? Sure, Allegiant flies the same route but F9 has top brand recognition on the Front Range. Also, why no Newport News-Orlando? Seems to be a no brainer like Knoxville-Orlando that was just announced.

    2. They’ve tried to kill the Q400s on multiple occasions already. I think Aspen kept them around but now with the ULCC effort, it doesn’t fit.

      1. So what’s wrong with the 400 (which is really just a modernized Dash 8, right?). Did it not perform as advertised? Logic would suggest it would be a decent aircraft for the Rockies because you’d have a lot of fairly low yielding, thinly populated destinations where low operating costs on a smaller aircraft would help.

        1. My understanding is that the Q400 isn’t really a low cost airplane. That extra speed adds to the cost. (The ATR72 is slower and cheaper, I believe.) So it’s great for certain missions, but if you’re going ULCC, my guess is that it’s not the way to go, especially with a tiny fleet. (I don’t have hard number on this, however.)

          1. It’s low cost compared to RJs, and if you have enough capacity for it, it’s great. Still, eliminating it is cheaper. (I thought it was more or less even with ATRs but I’m not sure either)

  6. I did say maybe they should go back to the old Frontier days, which was serving a lot of small cities from Denver. Let UA/WN have the bigger cities and then go where they don’t with some key larger cities thrown in.

  7. Contrary to what Cranky is reporting, it does look like BLI-DEN is daily. Probably not a bad idea (they did use to operate YVR-DEN); as it provides Metro Vancouver with a bunch of mid-west destinations.

    The competition is United [Express] with 2x A319 and 1x CRJ700 on YVR-DEN.

  8. Cranky Wrote:

    “That?s another hallmark of ultra low cost carriers ? try a bunch of new routes and quickly walk away if they don?t work out.”

    Indeed, as another route going away is DEN-RFD, which they only started up late last year.

    1. Cranky- Can you call the guys at RFD and tell them to give it up already!? They’ve courted and lost UA, NW, and Frontier in recent memory. 1hr 15 mins to ORD or 2hrs to MDW. At what point does the airport just say enough!

      1. Even if RFD sticks around this time, it’ll never last beyond the subsidy. They’ll never give up – also working on charters to Europe, IIRC. The people who should be calling up are the locals who are seeing their local government squander valuable funds.

        1. Actually, it may.

          DEN-RFD exists because Frontier now has the Apple Vacations contract (RFD-PUJ/CUN), and has to get an aircraft to RFD. Obviously the revenue guarantee helps.

          Similarly, Frontier flies a bookable 1 x weekly repo DEN-BOS through the winter for the Apple routes from BOS on the week-end, but there is no subsidy for that.

        2. RFD-Europe will happen later this year with the inexplicable announcement that Mokulele Airlines, which currently files Cessna Grand Caravans around the islands (and for a while had a few Republic E-170s operating in their colors too) will start flying a Honolulu-Rockford-London/Stansted route with a 767.

  9. With this transition to an ULCC and less than daily service to many cities, what are the odds that Jetblue or Southwest buys Frontier’s slots at LGA and DCA?

    I imagine if the plan is to sell Frontier from Republic, that they wont let these assets go, but perhaps if they plan to spin off, its a way to recoup some losses

    1. Actually, Brian Bedford mentioned sells some DCA slots a few months ago. Depending on what they eliminate, I would not be surprised if they sold three or four slots to jetBlue and maybe even do an interline/codeshare ala American, especially since Jetblue/Frontier route overlap is ahhh, zero [well directly anyways]. They will probably wait until the new DCA slot exemption rules are granted [and maybe apply for a few of their own as suggested davywavy]

      1. A few months, Brian Bedford actually talked about divesting some DCA slots. If they drop DCA-MKE, I would not be surprised if they sold three or four slots to Jetblue and maybe even include an interline/codeshare since they have no direct overlap with their routes. At the moment however, I imagine they are hanging on to find out what happens with the FAA re-authorization bill and its four ex-perimeter slots, especially if they can convert 2 slots into one ex-perimeter slot to Denver.

  10. You announce COS to four new destinations and not one of those is a military feeder? COS has a population of over 400,000, and my guess is that close to 40% of the folks that live in the area are working for the U.S. government in one form or another. DCA, SAN, even SAT with it now losing service from DEN might have been worth a shot. Instead of cutting service to SAT, connect it through COS from DEN, which is where you will be feeding the airplane from anyway, and stop forcing the locals to use AA through DFW or UAL through IAH, and try and see what type of military usage you get from one of the biggest military populations to another when it is a direct flight. Now DCA is route restricted, so why not try and move one of those sweet performing MKE or MCI slots over and give it a try. Heck, you could even connect COS to MCI and keep that lousy MCI to DCA and announce new MCI service out of COS. PDX? Seriously? Good luck.

    I hope this is not the same old method of throwing darts at a map to pick new destinations that F9 has been known to do in the past. It is also my hope that this airline is not going to be dependent upon receiving city subsidies to define it’s route map either. New management, new focus, same old ideas. That is going to create the same old problems… where do we go from here and what kind of airline do we really want to be?

    1. “Now DCA is route restricted, so why not try and move one of those sweet performing MKE or MCI slots over and give it a try.”

      Not possible. The MKE-MCI slots are all within perimeter. COS is beyond perimeter and would require one of the exemptions – which can’t be transferred.

        1. I think the chances are better than even money that Frontier will apply for a COS-DCA exemption in the upcoming round.

          But there are only four flights available to LCC/limited incumbents and it is thought that the western cities that don’t have non-stop DCA service will get the higher priority (SAN, SFO, PDX).

          A way around this way me to offer same plane service from one of thsoe cities through COS – SAN-COS-DCA? – but the one thing Frontier doesn’t want to do is turn COS into any kind of competing hub.

          1. I don’t think one SAN-COS-DCA or PDX-COS-DCA is going to cannibalize the Denver hub. In fact I like this idea very much. Cause there’s no way they’ll get another DEN-DCA slot.

            However, I think the Congressmen this time around are actually smart enough to understand and want non-stop service. If there’s a connection, it might as well be in one of the gazillion in-perimeter hubs. So non-stop service is the key to a winning bid.

            @Barnard You know the cookie will stay. It’s one of the few soft products (along with the animals) that Frontier has left. Remember the Undercover Boss show, where some people booked Frontier just for the cookie? The cookie wins Frontier serious “brownie points” (sorry I had to :)

  11. Or not, as the case may be.

    This was said on – a poster there claiming that DEN-RFD had been cut from the online forward schedules – but yesterday he retracted the statement.

    RFD is still in the system and still bookable.

    1. Oh interesting — is where I got my info for my earlier post in this thread that RFD was going away, but I hadn’t been back since to follow up on that thread. Thanks for the additional information.

  12. Two Thoughts:
    1. The cookie (you know that warm pastry baked on board) is still around. I wonder how long until that goes the way of the MKE route network.
    2. Why’d the Trixie the Red Fox have to get a lapband, shouldn’t the Grizwald the Bear have gotten it?

    1. Its not so much that the Q400 is a bad airplane. It’s not. It just doesn’t fit into a LCC or ULCC model. It is an aircraft that can feed a hub and connecting pax, not necessarily be profitable on its own. ULCC’s attempt to minimize this sort of “loss-leading” flying. Sure it may be profitable on a few routes in the Rockies, but its limited use and need for specialized parts, labor, training, etc. make it not worthwhile when there are other opportunities. Heck, even Southwest is going to dump nearly 100 717s (perfectly good planes) because the added profit and capability does not outweigh the added complexity

      1. Correct. The Q400 works well where there is a fare premium.

        For Frontier, based on their average fare, the aircraft has a break-even load factor close to 100%. This is okay for ASE – they can charge a premium at least in deep winter and high summer, but it’s an expensive business to keep an aircraft in the fleet for one route.

        The aircraft also has reliability issues – which Bombardier disputes – but they range across the airlines from Pinnacle in the US:

        To Tyrolean Airlines in Europe:

        At one stage, at Frontier, all 10 in the then fleet had to go back to Montreal to be checked out.

  13. Bellingham, WA, is a great route. Canadians drive down there from Vancouver to avoid high Canadian fares. They are already using if to connect with Alaska. Why not the Denver connection as well.

  14. Western Pacific could have made it, if the Beauvais’ family weren’t so greedy, they looted that airline for all it was worth.

    Same as it ever was.

  15. They could indeed be charter flights from Lansing to Cedar Rapids, one is F9 9268.

    Lansing is also desperately trying to lure more discount airlines so there
    could be a connection there as well, this was the first time I have noticed
    Frontier flying into Lansing so it got me wondering what was going on.

  16. Frontier should move their hub to Colorado Springs from Denver. They should follow the Spirit Airlines model – charge for everything, cabin bags, confirmed seats, check-in at the counter etc. Even though I do not like that model, it seems to work.

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Cranky Flier