For years, Spirit has said that it has hundreds of markets it can serve profitably in the US. With so much room for it and other ultra low cost carriers to expand, it seems pretty strange that Spirit and Frontier seem to be stepping on top of each other. The latest odd battleground is… Cleveland. Can that really be the next best option for Spirit? I doubt it, especially since Frontier has already been building it up. But there has to be more than just commercial considerations here. It’s a good old-fashioned turf war. This one has to be personal.
Frontier has been a frantically-busy airline this year as it works to remake its schedule to be fitting of an ultra low cost carrier. It has pulled down some Denver hub flights in favor of alternate airports like Trenton and Wilmington. But it’s more recently moved into bigger cities, cities with a void to fill.
Way back in February, soon after United de-hubbed Cleveland, Frontier decided that would be a good opportunity. Since then, it has ramped it up rapidly. It now has flights scheduled between Cleveland and Atlanta, Chicago/O’Hare, Dallas/Ft Worth, Ft Lauderdale, Ft Myers, Las Vegas, New York/LaGuardia, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington/Dulles.
With Frontier in that market, you’d think other ultra low cost carriers would want to focus elsewhere, but that’s not happening. Spirit announced its own Cleveland service a couple weeks ago. The markets? Six of the eight sit right on top of Frontier (Dallas/Ft Worth, Ft Lauderdale, Ft Myers, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tampa). Only Los Angeles and Myrtle Beach don’t overlap.
Is there really enough room for everyone in Cleveland? Probably not, but even if there is, it’s hard to imagine that’s the best use of an airplane. This just seems like war.
Spirit has been growing quickly, but Frontier’s schedule changes have been dizzying. The most recent strategy seems to be a move back into primary airports that it has abandoned. Even though it had previously focused on alternate airports in Wilmington and Trenton, the airline has announced it was coming back to Philly, an airport it dropped last year in favor of the other two. We’ve also seen significant new growth at Chicago/O’Hare, a Spirit focus, and the most surprising of all is the entrance into very high cost Miami. That, by the way, is an airport that Spirit has been rumored to be considering for some time. And it’s also a topic for a separate post.
With all these moves, Spirit has decided that the usual ultra low cost carrier strategy of avoiding direct ultra low cost competition won’t work. But why? Spirit clearly wants to send a message, but it seems to me that emotion is likely playing a part here.
There are a lot of familial ties between Spirit and Frontier, that’s for sure. The most obvious is in terms of ownership. Indigo Partners was the main force driving Spirit’s low cost transformation for years. But Indigo recently got out and instead bought Frontier from its former owner, Republic. So you have a new owner at Frontier that knows Spirit’s playbook. Spirit can’t like that.
But it goes deeper than that. Frontier’s President, Barry Biffle, was previously the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing officer at Spirit (with a short stint in Latin America in between). Meanwhile Spirit’s Chief Operating Officer John Bendoraitis and Chief Financial Officer Ted Christie both had those same jobs at Frontier.
These are two airlines that know each other well and are watching their moves carefully. It’s not hard to imagine that there’s going to be a lot of emotion involved here, and that’s not a good thing. Hopefully, cooler heads prevail and some of these routes are dropped quickly if they don’t work. But hey, maybe I’m wrong and Cleveland will prove to be the epicenter of the ultra low cost carrier revolution. Yeah, that’s it.
[Original brother fighting photo via Shutterstock]