It looks like we have a new winner in the “most insane number of new cities/routes announced in a day” category. On Tuesday, Frontier rolled out 85 new routes and 21 new cities in what has to be one of the biggest network changes in years. By next summer, Frontier will fly nearly double the number of routes nonstop compared to what it flies today. You might think there’s some clear strategy behind these moves, but so far I count three… or maybe four. I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but that won’t stop me from trying to make sense of this.
Let’s start with what should be an easy question but isn’t. How much of this is growth and how much replaces existing flying? Well, according to Airbus, Frontier still has 73 aircraft on order (2 A321s, 18 A319neos, and 53 A320neos), and some of those will start flying these new routes. But there are also some cuts that are funding this. For example, Denver to Atlanta gets cut from twice daily to once. Denver to LA goes to 11 times a week instead of twice daily. There are a bunch of those, but there’s also a lot of noise. Frontier runs a very seasonal schedule, so there are the usual route suspensions and additions that come around every time there’s a seasonal change as well. Suffice it to say that this isn’t all growth that’s being announced, but a huge chunk of it is.
When an airline makes a move like this, it’s usually done to feed a strategy. Spirit used to focus on flying between big cities with low frequencies. Allegiant did small city to big destination markets. That kind of thing. But in this one, I’m just grasping at straws. There do seem to be three overarching themes where the bulk of these moves fall.
- Rebuilding a Denver Hub
- Florida on Steroids
- Secondary Airports Thrive
There’s questionably a fourth, and then the rest just seem like random fill-in. Let’s break those down.
Rebuilding a Denver Hub
In the beginning, Frontier was all about Denver and Denver alone. The Mile High City was the airline’s hub, and it was competing ferociously with United. Things changed quickly, however. Southwest invaded Denver, Republic bought Frontier and merged it with Midwest, Frontier moved toward an ultra low cost carrier model, and then it was sold off. Denver’s importance has shrunk at every stop. Over time, Frontier found itself serving fewer cities from Denver with less frequency on those routes that remained. Southwest quickly made a big dent in the local market while United turned its hub into the most profitable in its system.
But now, Frontier is back, baby. And it’s adding a ton of new cities. Take a look, thanks to the Great Circle Mapper.
With the exception of Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Ontario, and San Jose (which fly once daily), all of these new routes will be flown 3 or 4 times a week. So we aren’t talking about Frontier rebuilding a major hub with multiple banks. But we are talking about Frontier creating connecting opportunities on the days that these fly. Some of that is intentional. Take a look at this quote from CEO Barry Biffle.
“Customers will benefit not only from the broad new selection of nonstop routes, but our growing network will provide more than 1,000 new connecting route options,” Biffle continued. “By taking advantage of our natural share of connecting passengers, we can offer our low fares to even more of America. This is particularly important through our largest hub and our home in Denver.”
First, I have to point out the mention of “natural share.” United President Scott Kirby has been spouting off about the airline’s need to regain its own “natural share” lately. This is very clearly a well-placed dig at United. But that’s fluff. What’s the real strategy here?
Certainly Frontier would like to get local traffic, but that’ll be tougher with a stronger United and Southwest in the market. Still, some infrequent markets like Charleston or Buffalo could do well.
But there is an acknowledgment in that quote of the value of connecting traffic. That’s weird since ultra low cost carriers aren’t usually too interested in anything but point-to-point. After all, connecting traffic usually produces less revenue, costs more, and adds a bunch of complexity.
Since many of these new Denver markets have yet to go on sale, I can’t quite figure out the extent of the connecting options. But I had to at least poke around and find some pricing examples to see how Frontier viewed this traffic from a pricing standpoint.
After several tries in markets where no connections existed, I found something in Ontario to Oklahoma City. Granted, it’s an overnight connection, but on November 14, Frontier wants $295 for you to connect overnight via Denver. Ontario to Denver alone on the 14th is running $49. Meanwhile, Denver-Oklahoma City on the 15th is priced at $219.
Then I looked at LA to Albuquerque. That’s running $109. But from LA to Denver, the airline won’t even sell you a ticket unless you join the Discount Den paid membership club. Then it’s $39. And Denver to Albuquerque is $39 for anyone.
So Frontier is offering connections, but it’s charging more for the privilege. On a side note, it’s also pursuing a really obnoxious strategy where you can’t even buy a ticket on that one route (at least on November 14) unless you buy a club membership. Careful, Frontier. People hate that.
So there you go. Frontier is selling connections, but it’s not discounting the point-to-point pricing, at least in this small sample. It’s weird, because you can fly Ontario to Oklahoma City on United for only $165.80. And you can fly nonstop from LA to Albuquerque for $65.20. So Frontier may be talking up connections, but they aren’t going to be very useful unless this strategy changes. Of course, if it changes, then the revenue might not be worth it.
Florida on Steroids
There’s not much more terrifying than the idea of Florida on steroids, but fortunately I’m not being literal here. What is happening is that Frontier is adding a slew of new routes from airports all across Florida. Take a look. Again, thanks Great Circle Mapper.
The labeling is a little goofy here, but Covington = Cincinnati and New York = Islip. As you can see, Frontier is attacking the state from all angles… except from Ft Lauderdale. Instead, it’s building up Miami with new flights to Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Providence, San Juan, and Trenton. Frontier had dipped its toes into Miami awhile ago, but no other low cost carrier had been willing to stomach Miami’s high fees. Apparently it’s working well enough for Frontier that it sees an opportunity for growth. That may well be the case as JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit all brawl up at Ft Lauderdale. I personally still can’t get past the high fees.
Secondary Airports Thrive
For awhile there, it looked like Frontier was going to pull back from the secondary airports like Trenton which had been trendy at one point in the airline’s past. But those airports seem to have come back with a vengeance. Here’s the final Great Circle Mapper image.
This just focuses on Providence, Islip, and Trenton, but the airline has also launched three routes from Ontario outside of Los Angeles that fit the bill here too. I was not expecting to see such a resurgence in these kinds of markets.
This isn’t even everything. There is a fair bit of growth in mid-size cities like Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh/Durham, and Kansas City too. These are all the domain of Southwest, and I can’t imagine that airline is happy to see any of this. I almost called that a fourth theme, but I left it off.
And of course, there are seemingly random one-offs, like Atlanta to San Juan or Salt Lake City to Vegas. If I had to pick one word to describe this massive change, it’s… confusing. It seems like Frontier is throwing several different strategies at the wall plus some one-off markets for good measure.
Maybe this is the airline’s version of reality television. Throw a few different options out there and let the public decide with their wallets which one survives. Or maybe Frontier just likes this sort of chaos. I still can’t quite figure it out.