Reading the Tea Leaves with Frontier


There has been a lot of talk lately about whether the resurgence of coronavirus through the southern and southwestern US will lead to a stall in the already shaky recovery in demand. Though it’s hard to see real-time booking data by market, there is another way to see how things are going. All we have to do is look at Frontier’s schedule changes.

It is maddening for travelers to see Frontier change its network so often. If a route works, great. Frontier will keep flying. If it doesn’t, Frontier isn’t going to wait around. It’s also not going to give much notice when it walks away. For that reason, Frontier runs its network as close to “real time” as any airline in the US. And it’s why looking at Frontier’s network changes will help us to see how things are looking.

Defining the Hotspots

My previous attempts at finding hotspots focused on the coasts, but now, things have changed dramatically. The best way to determine if a state is a hotspot these days is to see how close it sits to the southern border. Some are easy to define. (Hello, Florida.) Instead of just relying on the obvious — again, hello Florida — I used data to set the boundaries.

I pulled up the CDC site over the weekend and downloaded the number of cases by state over the last seven days. There were eight that had more than 10,000 cases. Those were:

South Carolina13,051
North Carolina12,836
New Coronavirus cases via CDC on July 5, 2020

First of all, please get your act together Florida, for the sake of the nation. Those top four states are the ones that most have focused on, and they’re also pretty large tourist destinations in their own right. But don’t underestimate the last four either.

I give honorary mention to Nevada which has the fourth highest new case rate per capita. Chances are, it’s all those visitors to Las Vegas that are causing problems as opposed to residents. With those nine states lined up, I turned to Diio by Cirium to see what Frontier did over the weekend.

A Late July Cut

Over the weekend, Frontier cut back its July flight totals by 1.6 percent. That may not be a lot, but IT IS ALREADY JULY. Frontier is still cutting, and that means demand must be softening.

There were 30 routes that saw 140 frequencies reduced, though no route was eliminated outright. What do we know about them?

Well first of all, 20 of those routes touched Florida. That’s 82 of the flights, or more than half of what was cut. I should note that in Frontier’s July schedule, about 40 percent of flights touch the state overall, so these last minute cuts do hit Florida harder than you’d expect.

Beyond that, everything cut touched one of the nine hotspot states except for three routes.

A Closer Look at August

While these were just last minute cuts, Frontier also reduced August flights this past weekend by 13.7 percent. That’s obviously a bigger cut, and it gives us more to play with here.

The result is pretty clear. Cuts in the nine hotspot states are over 18 percent, far outpacing the overall total. Here’s how much those areas declined as a percent of total schedule thanks to this weekend’s changes.

Data via Diio by Cirium

Clear enough for you? The hotspot states must be seeing demand dry up if Frontier is cutting back like this. At the same time, the airline is deploying capacity elsewhere. Just where are we seeing the growth?

Well, Colorado — the home of Frontier’s big Denver operation — is actually up 3 percent. Some routes to hotspots went down while others went up, strangely enough, but there were plenty of routes added outside of those places.

Frontier August Route Growth map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

You can see a little growth to non-hot spots in the south, but frankly, Louisiana isn’t that far down the list so that may not really hold up anyway. It’s really those midwestern and eastern destinations that I find most interesting. As the rest of the country battles, the northern parts can now travel more freely with each other.

What does seem clear here is that Frontier must be seeing weakness in these new hotspots, and that is bad news for the recovery in demand. Some governors appear to be mobilizing to try and fight this, but others seem far less concerned. If things continue to get worse, then expect bigger, broader impacts on air travel numbers just when things were starting to look up.

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16 comments on “Reading the Tea Leaves with Frontier

  1. Please report state population in addition to covid deaths. You will see if Florida a population of 23M and less than 4000 deaths is a better picture.

    1. We’re not talking about deaths here, rather it’s community spread that’s the problem. Besides it has become known to many that Floridauh has been openly cooking the books on the real number of cases.

      1. Cooking the books?

        Not sure on that one. A low-level data programmer made that allegation more than a month ago. There are two sides to every story. It’s possible Florida has been under-reporting but it also is possible that there is a legitimate difference of opinion between the programmer and the elected leadership in the State of Florida.

        Who knows? Maybe the politicians could be right.

        1. A friend from Illinois wintering in FL died recently of the virus. His wife mentioned something to the hospital staff about FL statistics, and was told that his death wasn’t recorded as a virus death in FL – it would be recorded in IL. Not sure how widespread that practice is, but it would cast doubt on the data. Either way, the stats for the USA are appalling.

            1. Sean, that’s the whole point. Every data decision has judgments about how to measure and manage the raw inputs. With 50 states, I can guarantee you there are somewhere close to 50 different interpretations on how to measure and manage the Covid-19 problem. Makes hell for the airlines who have to interpret it and decide where to fly and when to fly there.

              In Florida’s case, a low-level data specialist had a difference of opinion on the rules of how to handle data inputs. I don’t know who was right (and I live in Florida a good part of the year) but I do know that if I was governor, I’d be relying on more than an angry low-level data specialist in deciding how to treat Covid-19 data. Unfortunately for Florida, the national media saw a huge morality play between the State’s elected leadership and this angelic, pure as the driven snow data analyst. That’s how it came off and the state had significant damage control.

              Final thought — however a state handles Covid-19 restriction easing, they’re going to see a bump in cases. That’s reality as more of us come together, be it in airplanes, terminals or at workplaces. It’s going to happen until we either vaccinate the herd or develop a natural immunity.

  2. The problem w/ the governments’ (plural, state and federal) handling of covid is that they are not giving people sufficient information to know exactly where the increase in cases and risks are by demographic. Yes, we know that cities like Miami are seeing a spike in cases but we don’t know the demographics of those that are being hospitalized and dying. What is clear is that this round of the virus (if it is really a second round and not just an expansion of the first) is seeing far fewer deaths.
    States like NJ NY IL and MIA badly mishandled long-term care facilities esp. for the elderly and that accounts for a very large number of deaths; the US’ death rate even including those excessive deaths in the NE is still well below a number of European countries.
    Covid is serious and affects many people, including some that do not fit the profile for high risks – but that is true of every disease. The vast majority of people don’t know really where the risks are in their community so there are many very excessively frightened people while others have a sense that they are not at risk so blow it all off; both are dangerous extremes.

    The impact on air travel is frightening from both extremes. Having infected people get on airplanes is bad – but it is very unlikely that someone will ever know they were exposed while traveling by air because you are with people for such a short time. The bigger impact is that many people don’t want to get sick (like who really does) and don’t want to be around potential disease.

    Airlines are doing their bet I would strongly bet that financial results for the industry will show that yield recovery will happen faster for those airlines that offer extra space – B6, DL and WN – over carriers that cram flights full.

    Since F9 and other ULCCs can’t offer extra space and have a prayer of their model working, their only choice is to cut schedules.

    They also make rapid changes to their schedules which other airlines cannot or do not do; based on the list of hot spots and hubs, AA is probably most vulnerable if there really is a downturn in traffic followed by the other ULCCs that largely fly to “sun” destinations.

    We as a country need to get this thing under control but people also need to be able to make informed decisions about their own risk with the help of their doctor. Until there is a true individual risk-based assessment and the public collectively takes this thing seriously, there will be a very slow recovery. Of course, the other possibility is that the disease will become so widespread that its ability spread will eventually be diminished; when people in cities like NYC are testing 40% plus with antibodies, the infection rate will slow naturally. The same could happen in the south where the disease did not spread as quickly in the first few months and even as it spreads now, the hospitalization and death rates are much lower than in Europe or the first round in the US.

    For the sake of airlines, this chapter needs to end.

    1. Looks like you were overly negative on the loans. Now, DL, UA, WN, AS and B6 are getting the loans. This downturn is going to last for a while.

      1. I still think they are unnecessary and a bad move for the industry. The industry is not illiquid and the process of removing the low performers will be pushed back.
        It is important to remember that airlines don’t have to decide to take loans until Sep 30; given the uncertainty regarding the spread of the virus and airline demand, it makes sense to get your name on the fed money while possible.

        And if the fed money is more attractive than private money, airlines iwll just take it and pay down more expensive loans. That is bad for the free market system but it also means that there will be no real beneficiaries from the CARES Act because everyone wins – kinda like kindergarten.

  3. What good is it to add close-in additions to your schedule with so few people flying? There’d be literally no one on that flight if it’s only been for sale for a few days to a week or so. Unless Ken and Karen decide to visit the kids in DEN at the last minute they won’t even know that the new F9 flight exists.

  4. I appreciate your posts tremendously, and those or your commenters.

    I comment, now retired, as a 99 percent-truly discretionary traveler, who knows where he wishes to fly, but is concerned as to his safety flying to those places. I don’t believe it has anything to do with “hotspots” or governments not telling me where they are. And, surely it’s not that you can’t find available planes, crews, or inventories of reasonably priced fuel.

    To me, this is all about airlines, not governments, not letting consumers know what they are doing, with regards to distancing when seated and mask requirements, passengers and crews. I’m begging the airlines to show me, how things will be, checking in, getting to my flights, boarding, getting seated, having proper distancing, not being subjected to passengers, and crew, not wearing face covering, getting to cabin restrooms This all about fear of the unknown, what we don’t know, but you do. Use your websites to show vids about all of this, not by actors or actresses, but by real people on real flights. Have doctors give testimonials that your actions make travel safe.

    Do it, and I’ll be back! You don’t need more free money. Just try selling your products, openly and honestly!

    1. The problem with testimonials is they can be contorted to sell what ever point a person or group wants to promote no matter how untruthful.

      1. Were an airline to knowingly present a testimonial that is false, I would expect the FAA to yank its operating certificate.

        1. you would be wrong.
          The FAA specifically said it would not regulate covid-19 practices for the airline industry. If they don’t regulate, they can’t enforce.

          And even for far more egregious issues which the FAA does regulate and enforce like violation of thousands of maintenance safety violations, they have not pulled an airline’s operating certificate.

  5. Total number of cases isn’t really a fair metric. The top 3 states with the most cases are the 3 states with the highest population in the US: California, Texas, Florida. The positivity rate is a far better metric to use when comparing states.

  6. Private aviation is seeing the same thing. Colorado demand/operations were up this past week, Florida much softer than expected.

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