Frontier’s Massive Route Expansion Shows Which Cities Are Working and Maybe Which Ones Aren’t


Frontier has been on a tear lately, adding dozens and dozens of new routes for the summer. Just when I figured the airline might be done, I found out it’s releasing even more routes today. (If the press release isn’t out yet, keep watching.) This sounds like an airline just putting airplanes anywhere it can find a gate, but there’s a lot we can learn from these moves. We’re far enough into Frontier’s makeover as an ultra low cost carrier that trends are beginning to pop out. We can see which cities are working well, and we can start to guess which ones aren’t.

The biggest route dump so far came last week when the airline said it was starting 42 new routes. (I could only count 41, but that’s still insane.) What’s really interesting is that after Frontier CEO Barry Biffle boasted to me about the airline going down to having only 6 sub-daily routes, it has now reversed coursed. Not one of these 42 (or 41) routes will operate every day of the week.

Frontier has created a pattern here where flights operate either Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday. That means each destination will have flights every day of the week. It’s just that the airplanes will come from different places. For example, St Augustine, Florida is a new, small station for the airline. It will have only one flight a day. On Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday it gets flights from Philly while on the other days it gets flights from Chicago.

Reading through the press release, it looks like Frontier is adding a bunch of flights to a bunch of random places at random times. At least, that’s how they’ve spun it to appeal to people in every destination. But if you look at it, there are some aircraft bases that must be doing well, because they’re growing… a lot. Take a look at this map from the Great Circle Mapper:

Frontier's Growth Map

You can see the patterns here. Some of the airline’s bases are gaining a lot of new destinations. Orlando continues to grow tremendously and has become, I believe, the largest city for Frontier after Denver. That’s a success story. But that’s Orlando, the bottomless pit of theme park-zombies who love a bargain. More interestingly than that, take a look at Philly. Frontier that used to think Trenton and Wilmington were the way to serve Philly, but that strategy is toast. Philly itself is where the money is to be made. With Southwest having retrenched there, it makes sense that Frontier (or anyone) could come in and dramatically undercut American’s fares.

Atlanta is another apparent success story. Considering that when Southwest took over AirTran it slashed its routes, cut its flight frequencies, and raised its fares, Atlanta seems like it’s ripe for the picking. Chicago/O’Hare also appears to be doing well. Spirit has grown a lot there too, but considering how big Chicago is, there’s just plenty of room for everyone to cherry pick. Cleveland and Cincinnati seem to have picked up a few routes to larger cities as well. With United and Delta retrenching respectively, airlines with lower costs have seen real opportunity.

Maybe what’s more interesting is what cities aren’t seeing new flights. We don’t see Denver in this list. Today’s announcement actually has some Denver in it, but Denver was already big. I wouldn’t expect explosive growth there. It looks Washington/Dulles and Trenton see nothing either. Trenton will be lucky to keep what it has as Philly continues to grow. And as for Dulles, it seems like yet another low cost carrier has failed to find the success for which it hoped.

It should also be noted that there’s nothing for Miami in this announcement. To be fair, it’s summer, so you’d expect Miami might not grow until the winter. But my guess is that Frontier is just finding like everyone else that Miami’s costs are far too high and it’s tough to make low cost service work there.

It must be a lot of fun to be a route planner at Frontier these days. I’m sure some of these new routes are being funded by the death of old ones. Some could be seasonal, some not. Frontier’s network is certainly fairly fluid as it tries to find the network that will work best for the airline. At this point, it doesn’t look like Frontier is short of options at all.

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35 comments on “Frontier’s Massive Route Expansion Shows Which Cities Are Working and Maybe Which Ones Aren’t

  1. While Frontier has been expanding, is it all worth the cost of employees? Frontier has so few now and treats them like serfs.

  2. So what do you make of routes like PHXSFO, which go away and then return at the end of June and July (on some days of the week)? Was Frontier just short of planes?

    1. Yes, for about four or five months, Frontier is very short of planes. 5 x A321’s have come in, but more than a dozen A319’s are leaving (end of lease) meaning that for the first three or four months of this year the fleet is “very tight.”

      More aircraft arrive in May and June, for a net gain of 9 aircraft by the end of the year.

    2. Outer Space Guy – It could be they just don’t see enough demand during that time, compounded by an aircraft issue. I don’t know, but it’s an interesting way to plan.

  3. While Orlando may be the bottomless pit of theme park zombies who want cheap fares, airlines know they can fill the planes and can operate them at any time or on any day. Unlike a more business type city where business travelers want flight times that give them a full business day or work. And Florida theme parks can be enjoyed year round.

  4. Re: Dulles. I’m surprised that Frontier has been at Dulles as long as it has. For how long more? In fairness, the whole Dulles situation is a bit rocky these days, or so it seems.

    Nevertheless, I never quite considered IAD customers as being the Frontier type. Whatever!

  5. I’m guessing several of these routes will disappear relatively soon. That’s just how Frontier does it. Throw some darts on the wall and see which ones stick.

    1. Jim – It’s true, but Frontier wouldn’t be beefing up Philly, Atlanta, etc if it hadn’t seen positive results from its other flights there. So to me, it’s a good indicator showing which cities are doing best in the network.

  6. I’ve said it in the past before, but I am saddened somewhat but the move away from secondary/tertiary airports. Part I feel of why we don’t have true Ryanair style airlines (and even ULCC’s like Frontier and Spirit don’t match the insane prices of Ryanair) is because we don’t have the density, the mass transit connectivity to enable these other airports to be realistic options for individuals.

    1. Allegiant still seems to be focused (perhaps not exclusively, but still quite a bit) on connecting secondary/tertiary airports and smaller cities to popular destinations. A lot of their flights have a smaller city on one end and a larger city on the other.

      1. I think Sean was talking about secondary airports in cities, not about small cities. For example, flying to PMD instead of LAX.

    2. I don’t think secondary airports are that popular in the country because larger airport costs are still fairly low (compared to European airports) and access is relatively easy (even compared to say a decade ago) with the exception of a few airports, EWR, JFK, LGA and DCA, and even those have seen a proliferation of LCC/ULCC’s in recent years. Plus, the money (ie customers) are still at those airports and are less willing to fly out of places like Manchester or Rockford when they could fly from Boston or Chicago O’Hare for almost the same amount.

  7. As a CVG flyer I’m happy to see the CVGLAX and CVGSFO flights. Delta prints money on those flights as they are always full and very expensive. I thought was CVGPHL was interesting but I’m not sure it will last even if they schedule a 319. With competition from DL and AA on the route with good frequency I can see both getting down and dirty with F9 even with regional aircraft costs.

  8. IAD has long been thought of as a fortress hub, but it’s not a captive market by any means with DCA and BWI within spitting distance. Bargain hunters tend to fly out of BWI anyway.

  9. I’m amazed that people would want to fly across the country in a seat with a 28″ pitch. I’ll gladly pay someone else more money to sit in a sit with more legroom. Life is too short to torture yourself for a few bucks.

    1. Depends on how much money you have and how much you value your comfort. The answer is not the same for everyone.

    2. To me, flying is a means to get to do other awesome stuff. The less I spend on the flight, the more I have for the actual trip.

  10. I remain quite skeptical about the viability of air service that doesn’t operate every day. For decades, Airline Economics 101 has taught us that frequency wins. This makes sense — at least if you’re catering to people willing to pay above-rock-bottom fares (aka biz travellers). But even leisure travelers value frequency, and once you can’t fly back and forth on the days YOU want to travel, the odds are that you’re not going to be willing to pay much for this service either.

    I know that the basic model for USA ULCCs is to sucker in customers with low ball fares and they try to sell them all sorts of ancillary items, but I don’t see how that is ever going to work if you make your service undesirable. Yes, you can fill your plans with $39 fares, but you can’t get fares that realistically will cover your expenses.

    1. They certainly aren’t going for business travelers here. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and getting people who are willing to fly at an inconvenient time to save some money.

      1. Exactly. As Brett often puts it, Frontier and Allegiant aren’t really competing against other airlines for customers so much as they are competing against the Greyhound bus and long drives in cars.

        1. But logic suggests that the best way to run an airline — if you want to make money — is to cater to ALL travelers. Frontier writes off biz travellers. They write off leisure travelers who value their time. They write off leisure travelers who want basic comfort. They cater to only travelers for whom price is everything.

          How many companies — yet alone transport companies — are successful when they limit their clientele so severely? Especially to those who want to pay the least amount of money? This doesn’t seem like the recipe for long term success.

          1. Actually, conventional business logic says the opposite. It’s better to find a profitable market than it is to try and be all things to everyone. Find something you’re good at and focus on it.

            1. I’m not sure how “finding something you’re good at” applies to running a business model that discourages the highest paying customers to avoid doing business with you. At the end of the day, everyone pays the same for airplanes, facilties, fuel and labor (well, labor you can get away with for a few years). The airlines that will be most profitable are the ones that can charge the most for their product. Yes, there are niche leisure markets where frequency doesn’t matter much (Orlando and Vegas, for instance) but if you’re going to operate a nationwide network, you have to offer convenience. Nobody pays for inconvenience.

    2. Neither Allegiant nor Spirit (nor Frontier in its ULCC form) have ever sought the business traveller – although some business travellers do fly them

      Yet all three ULCC’s are making shed loads of money.

    3. Agree that frequency wins the day for me – but I’m primarily a business traveler. When booking a leisure fare and don’t find daily flights it’s frustrating as I usually want to take my personal trips mid-week to mid-week. Works best for my work schedules and has other benefits as well…

      I loathe traveling when the planes are full of in-frequent travelers that think the seat belt sign being turned off is freedom to chat with your buddy in seat 7C when you’re in 34B, or families that have children pulling roll-a-boards bigger than them to avoid a checked bag fee. Shall I go on?

      Guess I’m just not getting on a Frontier flight anytime soon.

  11. How does frontier’s routes compares to spirit? The overlaps etc.
    Just wondering if/when the merger between to two happens.

  12. While I like Orlando I do wish they would add additional routes to other Florida cities. I agree with your take on Miami but there are other airports.

  13. ATL-SFO was ripe for the picking. SW dropped it for Oakland, and United and Delta match high fares. AND, they are a good flying times for business travelers.

  14. Just for the record, CF, Mr. Biffle is not the CEO of Frontier Airlines – he is the President. Since Siegel left there has been no formal CEO at Frontier, Mr. Biffle and Mr. Franke are splitting the job between them.

    It suggests that Mr. Franke is having far too much fun to take a non-primary role and why should he? It’s his money, the whole enchilada, and given his age this is arguably his last big airline venture, so he’s making the most of it. :-)

  15. Interesting to see F9’s route map shift as they figure out how to serve a bunch of destinations at low prices with the planes they’ve got…or will have soon.

    As for the oft-repeated trope of Frontier being bottom of the barrel, sometimes they’re a decent deal even when you buy up to a seat that reclines and a carry-on, and their flight times provide another option vs. other carriers. I’m splitting my next AUS-DEN flight between them and Southwest because the flight time works better and Stretch’s leg room is quite reasonable. And the carry-on fee (which is more than a checked bag fee) removes the “carry on luggage bigger than you are” folks in a market that’s had Frontier for long enough for folks to figure out what’s going on.

    That said, I’m mercenary with my airline choices, since either I’m flying to the Denver triple-hub or have to connect through DFW/IAH/ATL to get where I want to go, and even if I consolidated my flying I wouldn’t get any terribly useful status benefits on any airline.

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