Frontier Leaves LAX For Good

Frontier

The news sounded suspiciously like an expansion. The twin press releases proclaimed “Frontier Airlines Expands at Ontario International Airport” and “Frontier Airlines Announces its Arrival at Hollywood Burbank Airport.” Frontier has indeed been expanding a lot lately, but this change was different. With this expansion comes contraction. The airline has decided to leave the region’s premier airport, LAX, entirely.

The ultra low-cost landscape in the LA area is not overly complicated despite all of the different airports in the region. Strangely enough, it’s the primary airport, LAX, that has had the bulk of the traffic for years. That’s not usually how things work out in low-cost land.

Allegiant established a base at LAX in 2009, and it has had a consistent presence ever since. Excluding a brief foray into Long Beach in 2010/2011, that has been Allegiant’s only SoCal base until this year when it entered Orange County. Sun Country has flown to LAX for ages, and that was it until this year when it went into Orange County as well. Spirit has also been at LAX for many years, but it branched out to Burbank in 2019 and then expanded again this year to Orange County. (Sensing a trend? They all wanted into Orange County but it was full until the pandemic changed things.) And of course, there’s now Avelo which started up at Burbank this year.

Frontier has had a more complex history. Dating back to before it was a ULCC, Frontier served both LAX and Orange County, important business markets. It too had a brief foray into Long Beach in 2010/2011 that was disastrous. It went into Ontario in 2017 and now will go into Burbank as well.

The rationale for using LAX in the past was pretty clear. For these airlines, Los Angeles was more of a destination, and serving LAX was the best way to serve that destination. Avelo, of course, is more focused on the local market so it went to Burbank. And now Frontier is walking away from LAX entirely as it ponders the importance of LAX in the world today.

The new plan is to take the current LAX flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix and move them to Burbank on July 15. Burbank will also get Denver flights. Meanwhile, Ontario will take the LAX flight to Atlanta, along with an increased amount of Denver flying. LAX will continue to have 3x weekly flights to Denver through September, and then it’s all over. The end result is that all of the markets will continue to be served from the LA area, just not from LAX.

Why is this happening? Well, the airline provide this statement to me which gives some clues.

We are pulling back on much of our service from LAX between now and mid-July and will completely wind down our operations from LAX by the end of September. We always review our airport portfolio from a cost and profitability perspective and make adjustments where necessary, especially in the event of significantly increased costs.

Ever since Delta moved out of Terminals 5/6 and into Terminals 2/3, Frontier has operated in Terminal 5. In March of this year, it was revealed that Frontier — along with Aer Lingus, Allegiant, Sun Country, and VivaAerobus — would all be paid to make the move to the new Terminal 1.5.

Terminal 1.5 has no gates. It’s a headhouse with ticketing and baggage claim facilities. When passengers check in and go through security, they are then put on a bus to the midfield satellite concourse (MSC) which lies to the west of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. It’s a treacherous path. Here’s a map.

Does that sound inconvenient? It is. But as a ULCC, Frontier undoubtedly cares less about inconvenience and more about cost. The airport did offer Frontier $177,600 in rental credits to compensate for the move, but that’s a pittance in the scheme of things. It’s the ongoing costs that are more concerning. As these facilities are completed, the debt has to be paid for, and that means airline costs rise. There is a LOT of construction work being completed in the next few years.

In February 2020, Fitch said it now expects cost per enplaned passenger to peak at $33 over the next few years. February 2020 was eons ago, so it’s likely things have changed to some extent. But that’s a rapid rise that’s not necessarily tough for a long-haul international carrier to absorb with its high fares. But for a ULCC like Frontier? That’s a big chunk of money that its fares can’t reasonably support.

Looking at DOT O&D data via Cirium, we can see that in 2019, the average Frontier fare from LAX to Denver was $66. Phoenix was $60 and Las Vegas was, well, it was $16. Atlanta was at $102, but that’s a far more costly flight due to the distance involved. Of course, ancillary fees were on top of that, but it’s still tough to generate enough revenue to overcome the steep costs.

It’s hard to know what Frontier would have had to pay exactly in terms of cost per enplanement, but it is clear that it was too high for Frontier’s tastes. To compare, Ontario was at just over $11 CPE in 2021 though that is expected to rise in the short term before settling back down. Meanwhile, Burbank is at a mere $2. If you’ve been to the airport you know it hasn’t spent much money on anything. And Orange County sits around $10. They aren’t in the same league as LAX, which is amazing since just a few years ago, Ontario actually had higher costs when it was managed by the same group at LAX.

Frontier’s bet is that it can dramatically reduce costs and push fares lower by switching its service to these other airports. Ontario will likely remain the primary airport for the airline, and it will be the main longer-haul location. Burbank will be a niche, as will Orange County. Serving those airports will give Frontier coverage around the LA Basin, but LAX is a big hole.

It’s worth noting that this is the exact opposite strategy that Allegiant and Spirit are taking. Spirit has been growing LAX all year as it looks to grab more gates. Allegiant just announced that it will move to Terminal 1.5 on May 19, and it’s going to add a fourth aircraft to its base at the airport.

How can a hyper-cost-focused airline like Allegiant justify staying at LAX while Frontier can’t? That’s a good question, and it leaves me scratching my head. One thing we do know is that Allegiant sees Los Angeles as a destination. All these people flying in from small towns are looking to fly to LAX, so maybe it thinks it needs to be in that airport. Then again, it has no problem serving Sanford and St Pete instead of Orlando and Tampa. I spoke with Los Angeles World Airports and they gave me this statement:

Frontier Airlines is a valued partner at Los Angeles International (LAX) airport. We are sorry to see them move their Los Angeles service away from LAX later this year, but wish them all the very best and welcome their return to LAX one day very soon. We are fortunate to have a regional network of airports offering a wide range of options to travelers in the LA basin, and are glad that Frontier will maintain its service to the Los Angeles area, to help provide more travel options for Angelenos and visitors as we recover from the pandemic and well into the future.

LAWA has undertaken numerous efforts to maintain competitive rates and charges while we continue to deliver on our long-awaited capital improvements. We are currently in the process of implementing the Airline Cost Stabilization and Recovery Plan, which harmonizes common use rates and charges across the airport and provides airlines and the airport with more certainty regarding rates and charges. In addition, LAWA has utilized CARES Act and other funding to mitigate increases in airline rates and charges as a result of reduced activity during COVID-19.

Getting beyond the fluff, it’s the second paragraph that has the meat of the statement. LAWA say it’s trying to reduce charges, but it seems that the airport can’t do enough to sway Frontier to stay. Regardless of what LAWA is doing to its cost structure, it is clearly higher there than at any of the other LA Basin airports and it’s more than Frontier was willing to pay.

54 comments on “Frontier Leaves LAX For Good

  1. F9 should take a page from early 80’s AS and advertise BUR/ONT as “How To Get Around L.A.” Before AS served LAX they flew to several satellite airports, I think SNA was the third but it may have been LGB. For some reason I remember that ad and F9 could dust off the concept.

  2. It’s time for F9 to simply hang up their “Going Out of Business” sign and sell off their limited assets. The original Frontier was a great company but this bastardized version of a once proud airline is a joke. Frontier should simply merge with Spirit and combined two big jokes into one so we can all have a great laugh.

    1. They’re a profitable joke (at least were, pre-Covid – and likely will achieve profitability, post-Covid, before the supermajors like American, Delta and United).

      The business model is definitely not for everyone, but after operating safely, the obligation of a “real” airline is to make money. They’re as real in that respect as any airline at the moment.

    2. While I don’t fly F9, I also don’t want them to merge or go out of business. As a DEN based traveler they provide downward pressure on WN and UA for flights within the US and to some degree to Mexico. For that reason alone I want them to stay around… okay.. the other reason is I really like the animal tails when I’m at DEN. It makes plane spotting more fun to spot the animal tails given all airlines fly the same boring looking airframes.

    3. You may think they are a joke but because of Spirit, I have been able to travel to many locations to see family and friends and actually vacation in the Caribbean at a very reasonable cost. My travel budget without Spirit would have been significantly curtailed. Yeah, leg room is cramped but that is what a ULCC model is. Btw… this past weekend I flew on an American 738 in Main Cabin, nee Coach, nee steerage, and the leg room was only an inch or so more than Spirit, with similar firm seats. If money wasn’t an issue for me I would prefer to fly on the legacy carriers in First or Business Class but that is not possible. Since they don’t advertise, many don’t know that their flight completion rates and on-time performance is now very high. They have fixed many of the operational problems that I tolerated a few years ago. So guess what… I am actually grateful for the product that Spirit puts out and what it has allowed me to do.

  3. The contrast between F9 and G4 is quite stark. F9 is leaving and G4 says its increasing. Since G4 serves a lot of secondary airport in other places, it’s weird that they want to stay in LAX with the incoming CPE raises and the move to MSC.

    Also, HA looks to have been forced out to MSC now. So, it’s just AA/B6/NK in T-5. Those widebody gates will be converted to narrowbody. I assume that means more gates at T-5. I don’t think B6 & NK want to move to MSC, so what does LAWA do here? AA’s gate utilization at T-5 is non-existent, but it has a deal with LAWA to take over most of the gates at T-5.

    1. If AA & B6 are in the same terminal as you note, then NK should move to MSC as that would open the jet bridge for an expansion of the partnership between AA & B6. Also bring As into the fold while they are at it.

      1. Since JetBlue and American are at the same terminal, I don’t know if Spirit will move all the way to the MSC. But the MSC is for International flights! When will people understand that…

    2. If Hawaiian Airlines move to the MSC, then that would be very bad for JetBlue’s and Hawaiian’s relationship. I don’t think JetBlue wants that.

  4. Ontario actually had higher costs when it was managed by the same group at LAX.

    That’s actually super interesting. So ONT has grown successfully since the divorce?

    1. They have grown 10x since the divorce. They have many new destinations, along with offering international service to Taiwan (currently stopped due to pandemic) along with soon starting flights with Avianca to central america.

      1. Their passenger count has grown by around 30% since the divorce. Of course all of those gains and more were lost last year due to the pandemic.

  5. How does any LCC operate at an airport where it costs $33 per enplanement? I can’t see how the math would EVER work.

    1. To be fair, EWR is in the high 20s right now and probably will exceed 30 at some point. I don’t see NK leaving. F9/G4 is a different story.

  6. A totally unscientific and personally biased (yet telling) comment: this love affair of ULCC’s with LAX baffles me too. Yes, I’ve flown into LAX for business AND for pleasure. But the latter was not because that was my choice; it was because LAX was a lot cheaper than the others. When I was taking the family to SoCal for a vacation and did have an even choice, we flew from Chicago to SNA. And it was beautiful. For work, we have a facility near ONT, yet on my last visit (just before COVID lockdowns) I had to fly into LAX because the majors had cut back on schedule and the fare was double (to be fair, it was a last minute trip – 3 days notice. I’d have loved to fly into ONT on that one.

    Basically, my point here is that LAX would seem to be the airport that you fly into if you have business in the LA area; or if you’re coming in from far flung locations. But if you’re on a self-paid vacation, most things you’d want to see are closer to either BUR (Hollywood, Universal, downtown LA) or SNA (Disney, Knotts Berry Farm, OC beaches). Now ONT is less appealing for the tourist, but it is a huge market in itself that has the type of traveler that ULCC’s are looking for – to take elsewhere.

    So, this move makes more sense to me than Spirit and Allegiant making a base out of LAX does. LAX would seem to be the place to be if you’re one of the major airlines or an international airline. These other smaller airports seem perfect for the ULCCs. Which begs the question: why hasn’t one of them moved into LGB in a big way? That would seem to be perfectly suited for F9 or Spirit or Allegiant.

    1. I think that many non-Californians simply don’t understand the airport situation in LA. In many other states, secondary airports are far away from the city and very inconvenient to get to. They assume that the situation is the same in LA, and that it is better to fly to LAX.

      Another thing is that LAX has far more connections, so those passengers effectively subsidize the local O&D traffic.

    2. > Which begs the question: why hasn’t one of them moved into LGB in a big way? That would seem to be perfectly suited for F9 or Spirit or Allegiant.

      LGB has obnoxiously low slot limits imposed by the city that are pretty much all taken by SWA – no room for new entrants. The FAA really needs to force Long Beach to open up that airport, if only as a reliever for full-up SNA (or at least it will be post-pandemic).

      1. Thanks for that insight! LGB would seem to be a perfect airport for one of these ULCC’s to serve in a big way. I recall when JetBlue left LGB and was thinking that there might be open slots/gates now. Guess I was optimistic.

        1. Hopefully CF weighs in in this. I also thought LGB and ULCCs should be a match made in heaven. Is it really just a slot issue? I didn’t think all of the slots were even allocated but ICBW on that.

          1. Bill – All the LGB slots are allocated, though it seems pretty clear that Delta has some it has no use for. Unless someone wants to come in with a CRJ-700 or smaller to use the commuter slots, there is no room.

  7. Here is the difference you guys. Allegiant’s niche is flying people TO LA. Frontier is more about flying people FROM SoCal. G4 brings tourists from small cities to LA, and they really need to be at the big airport because it can confuse their customers if you take them to Ontario.

    Look at where Frontier serves from LA…Dallas, Denver, Vegas, etc. Their market is local traffic from LA or from larger cities back, a la Spirit. So they can serve the cheaper airports without losing much traffic.

    1. I think your right on John. For me I go to LAX when I want a non stop to a smaller airport, perfect for an Allegiant flight or the big 3, and people coming from those destinations only really know LAX. Otherwise if going to Denver, Vegas, Phoenix or Atlanta I would fly out of LGB, SNA, or ONT every time, the frequency is there and prices are competitive. Add in the extra hassle of MSC and LAX in general, any local will be scared off of any T1.5 carrier unless they have no other choice. Same reason Jetblue has basically lost me for most of their routes I used to fly.

  8. Pre-pandemic, Frontier was one of the most profitable airlines in the country on a percentage basis. In my opinion, that’s because the airline knows what it is – and, just as importantly, what it isn’t. In light of Frontier’s move out of LAX (and away from Godzilla’s winter home), I’m wondering if a return to Long Beach isn’t a possibility. It’s closer to LAX than Orange County, and might help fill in the newly created hole in the airline’s network. I’m glad you found a way to include Godzilla in this post. I’ve missed him.

    1. Thanks for pointing out Godzilla’s winter home. I didn’t think to zoom in on the photo on my phone. :-)

  9. Why do they need the 1.5 terminal to ferry people to the MSC? I thought they built a people mover from Bradley to that concourse so why stage everything over at 1.5?

    1. Lack of ticket counter space in Bradley. Even before MSC opened you had international airlines using check in counters in other terminals and departing from Bradley. Virgin Australia for example used T2 for check-in.

      1. LAX is going to rue the day they didn’t build the new Bradley with space to expand the check-in area. It would have been difficult to expand it while maintaining existing operations but it was doable.

        1. I agree. It really seems insane. Let’s build a bunch of new gates but no terminal space. Huh?

          1. I’m not sure it was physically possible. The new gates were simply grafted onto the old gates or built on the old gates location. Then there’s nowhere else to expand the check in. Can’t go north/south cause that’s airplane alleyway. Can’t go west cause that’s airplane-land also. The only conceivable way I can think of is to go into the horseshoe, basically cutting the loop length and eating into the parking lot.

            And I dunno how feasible that was because I’m guessing Terminal 3 and 4 wanted to keep their curbside.

            1. They will be going into the horseshoe, but not eating into parking — the new people mover station for TBIT/T4 will have a ticketing hall, it will be located above the current parking structure. All of the people mover renderings show that the TBIT station is far larger than the other two stations within the CTA, part of the reason for that is the additional check-in space.

  10. And ya gotta love that the MSC, which was built with the idea handling lots of widebodies at the gates, is instead going to be used primarily (at least for now) for 737s and A319s/20s/21s.

    1. I don’t think the MSC will have the 737s, A320/21s there. They will have wide bodies. Mark my words.

    2. Or your wish could come true…LAX might build a south half of the MSC which might have some A320 series and 737 series gates. This north half is definitely gonna be used for international flights. A KLM 787-9 went into the A380 gate from Amsterdam a few days ago…not lying..you can look up on Flightrader24 and search up KL603. I believe it was on May 16th or the 17th I saw it like that. Check one of those days and you’ll see that I am right.

      1. I don’t doubt it will be used as international overflow but just the idea that they shoved a bunch of narrow body operators over there I find very humorous…

        1. It’s only ViveoAerobus that’s operating there for narrowbodies; other airlines will slowly operate there too. Widebody airlines will come sooner than later. The MSC is supposed to be for the TBIT, and it is mainly for widebodies, but yes, your right; more narrow-bodies are coming than wide-bodies. I’m sure A380s will also go there when they start coming back.

        2. Update: PAL is being forced to go to the Midfield Satelite Concourse (MSC). I don’t know why. LAX shouldn’t force airlines to go to a new terminal. If they want to, they can go to the MSC. Sheesh. LAX is forcing airlines now.

    1. You just lower the jet bridge and make sure there are markings on the cement that show where to stop. It’s harder to convert to a wide body gate from a narrow body gate

      1. Do airports ever move the actual doors/bridges around so that they can add a few gates and fit in more narrowbody planes in the same footprint? I assume that’s far too much hassle & expense just to gain a few extra gates, but have to ask.

        1. SFO has done it. My dad flew on JetBlue and saw some planes that are narrowbody go to widebody gates.

  11. What!?! Frontier leaving LAX!?! That’s so surprising!

    Also, the MSC is for the International terminal…not cats and dogs…sheesh

  12. LAWA is a joke. And arguably the most unprofessional airport in the region.

    I heard from a source close to the situation that they strong armed frontier and all the MSC carriers into this move all the while trying to sell the airline on the fact that they are working to “equalize the rates” across all common use gates. Can’t you equalize rates without increasing them significantly?

    Not to mention the increased manpower needed to man two terminals with Customer service and ramp staff is increasing costs for the airline significantly. A source from Allegiant told me that they expect all costs associated with ground handling(one of the largest operating costs for airlines) to increase by 20% on a per flight basis.

    Additionally, there are so many huge costs ppl don’t think about that make this a terrible situation for all MSC/T1.5 carriers IE additional wheelchair push costs, IT cabling costs for new terminal, decreased baggage cutoff times, terrible passenger experience, and the biggest one is increase in missed bags from using a baggage makeup system that was not designed for this operation.

    Oh did I mention that filling up your plane with fuel in this new terminal is more money per gallon than the other terminals?

    When all the airlines suggested other alternatives that would increase other terminals gate utilization on common use gates(backed by facts) they told Allegiant, F9, and Suncountry that wasn’t an option.

    Long story short, LAWA wanted a new terminal and now they can’t pay for it so they are forcing other airlines to move there even when there is zero need or demand for the terminal.

    LAWA tried to force what they thought was a weak airline into a shitty situation and F9 told them to kick rocks. Good for them.

    P.S. heard today the carriers who began operating into the T1.5/MSC have had a nightmare of a go at it. Busses aren’t available for pax, significant amount of ppl missing flights daily(10 or more per flight), and tons of bags missing planes. YIKES.

    1. Gonna have to disagree with you on the latter half. I work in T1 for WN so I’ve been checking out how the new T1.5 operation is working. It’s actually not bad at all. The inconvenience of getting bussed to MSC is of that but not bad to what people are making it to be. The airside LAWA People Mover buses come & go every 5 mins and take only between 5 & 10 mins from T1.5 to MSC and vis versa. And these people mover buses have right of way to every other vehicle on the airfield except moving aircraft. These buses are not required to drive on the main VSR or “Vehicle Service Road” they drive on the left hand side of the taxiways from T1,T2 – MSC.

      People act like this is something new for LAX but it really isn’t. DL & it’s SkyTeam Partners check-in are in T2 but flights depart at TBIT. So this not anything new.

      1. Thanks for the interesting insights from on the ground.

        I think it just seems so crazy that LAWA went to the expense of adding gates at the MSC without finding a way to add check in space to TBIT. Spending billions of dollars and still having to deal with these significant half measures, compromises and other limitations.

      2. Well Might look ok from the outside, but Busses are taking at average 11 min to get from T1.5 to MSC.(times provided by TIBTEC) and When you add time for the TSA checkpoint, waiting for a bus, and navigating a HUGE terminal like MSC, it turns into a mess to say the least. Many airlines are missing 10 or more customers per flight. And Even with the access the busses have to veer off of the VSR they have seen bus times of up to 16min. Not to mention due to Covid restrictions busses can only run at 50% capacity. Frontier has 230 pax each flight multiply that by the other flights checking in simultaneously and 20-30 pax per bus. You do the math ?????

        1. A lot of what you mentioned is really much ado about nothing.

          TSA checkpoint is irrelevant. Passengers have to pass through checkpoints regardless. The 50% restriction on buses is only until September, and considering passengers would have to walk from TBIT to MSC, the difference in travel time is what ? Maybe 5 minutes. Considering you should be at the airport an hour ahead of time a 5 minute differential.

  13. Dumb question. if I’m flying an airline out of 1.5, with a mobile boarding pass and no checked bags can I just go to the TBIT and clear security there and take the pedestrian tunnel?

    Or will the person manning the entrance to security at TBIT send me back to 1.5 to clear security and take the bus?

    1. SubwayNut – This is a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I do know that a boarding pass for travel on any given day can be used to access any terminal at LAX through any security checkpoint. So you could definitely get through the TBIT security queue. But whether or not the airlines require everyone to check in at T1.5 is something I don’t know.

      1. LAX website claims the following:
        “Passengers traveling on Viva Aerobus and Allegiant will check in at Terminal 1. Those passengers can take a dedicated free shuttle or walk to the Tom Bradley International Terminal (Terminal B). ”

        Whether the airlines are onboard with this flexibility is another question…

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