Overshadowed by the Frontier/Spirit merger announcement was an operational meltdown at Frontier on Monday. The airline had to cancel more than a third of its flights, and of those that did operate, only a third were on-time. As I usually do when this happens, I turned to masFlight to see the carnage, but I saw something strange. Frontier recovered very quickly, and I was curious as to why.
Let’s start with a chart that shows the full story, and then we can get into the details.
Frontier 2022 Operational Performance
The year did not start off well for Frontier or for any other airline for that matter. But once the holidays passed, Frontier settled into a predictable rhythm. On good weather days, the airline ran most of its flights. On bad weather days, it struggled. You can see that in the green line where the snowstorm that ran through the southeast and up into the Northeast in mid-January hurt operations and then again at the end of January with that nasty Nor’easter.
Every time, the recovery was quick. On January 29, Frontier canceled a quarter of its flights. On January 30, it canceled less than 5 percent, and by January 31 it canceled only 1.1 percent.
This might not sound like an overly impressive feat. After all, other airlines had similar recoveries. But weather should be easy. By that, I mean airlines know weather is coming, so they have the ability to position their airplanes and crews in advance. They can cancel flights proactively and be ready to recover. Some airlines have failed at that too in the past, but during late January, none were overly terrible. This should be a basic function of an airline.
A tech outage is something else, however. Those strike without warning, and airplanes and crews are often frozen where they stand at the time the outage hits — unless, you know, they’re in the air, in which case they’ll generally prefer to go ahead and land the thing. We have seen this with a whole lot of airlines, and the recovery can be very, very ugly.
But… look at Frontier. Things went south on Monday morning when the outage occurred, and by the end of the day it had completed only 61.9 percent of scheduled flights. The flights that did operate only ran 34 percent on-time. That is a true meltdown, and if you were flying on Frontier on Monday, my condolences.
Now take a look at Tuesday. The airline sprung back to life very quickly with a 98.4 percent completion and arrivals within 14 minutes of 77.6 percent. I didn’t include on the chart, because it wasn’t a complete day, but when I checked last night, Frontier was up to 99.7 percent completion and 88.0 percent on-time. That’s honestly rather incredible for a day or two following such a terrible Monday. How did this happen?
If you ask Frontier, which I did, here’s the story.
We worked hard throughout the pandemic to build a network schedule that is resilient and more easily recoverable when disruption occurs. This contributed to our ability to recover as quickly as we did. Our goal was to contain the issue to a 24-hour period and we believe the team did a great job to make that happen. Our Systems Operation Center team made plans that were achievable to recover. Our Crew Scheduling team worked feverishly, for many hours into the night, to get crew schedules updated and make individual contact with them. Our pilots and flight attendants strived to take care of our customers, as did our Customer Service team in offering options to get them to their destinations. It was a team effort across the entire company. Foundational to every decision made throughout the recovery was to get all of our crew members, aircraft, and the operation as a whole back on schedule as quickly as possible and avoid the irregular operation becoming a multi-day event.
It’s a good story, so I’m sure the airline is happy to spread the love around to all workgroups, and kudos should go out to all of them. Naturally, I’m particularly interested in the network design so that’s what I’ll focus on here.
Airlines like Southwest and Spirit like to run their airplanes through their networks. Southwest is the posterchild of this type of operation, and that’s why you find so many “direct” flights that stop but don’t change planes.
Here’s a typical example, Southwest 737-700 N264LV’s routing from yesterday:
This airplane touched every corner of the country on its journey from Albuquerque in the morning to Sacramento at night, and if weather was bad in one place, it’s going to mess people up far away from the weather. It can also result in crews being stranded way out of place.
Spirit does the same. For example, ship N697NK went Tampa – Detroit – Las Vegas – Sacramento – Las Vegas yesterday. That creates a lot of potential pain points, but airlines like to do it because it creates better commercial opportunities by adding more frequencies on routes that may have some nonstop service and better direct opportunities in markets that have none.
Frontier, however, doesn’t do that as much. It focuses more on the out-and-back style of operation when it can. An example here is ship N349FR — an A320neo better known as Hops the Rabbit — which yesterday flew Denver – Charlotte – Denver – Cedar Rapids – Denver – San Diego. This morning it was pegged to fly back to Denver.
Sometimes it’s not that clean, but it still generally fits a pattern. Look at N383FR to see what I mean there. Another neo, Manteo the Red Wolf, flew yesterday West Palm Beach – Islip – Tampa – Buffalo – Tampa – Atlanta. This is a lot of north-south flying in the same general region. And it ends up in Atlanta which is a base for the airline.
In these cases, it does make it easier when something goes wrong. Look at what Manteo did on Monday. He flew what turned into a horrendous redeye from LaGuardia to Miami. He was then supposed to do Miami – Atlanta – Newark – Atlanta. The outage hit, and the Miami – Atlanta flight that was supposed to leave at 7am didn’t get out until 1pm. So what did Frontier do? It scrapped the Atlanta – Newark – Atlanta roundtrip. After it came in from Miami, the airplane went on a scheduled 1:50pm Atlanta – West Palm that didn’t leave until after 3. That airplane came back to Atlanta and was ready to start fresh the next morning, as were the crews.
I suppose the point is that if you cancel enough — or even TOO much if you want to be conservative — on the day of the meltdown and you have an operational design like this, it means you can recover more quickly.
That is a big part of it, but there’s one other thing here that really helped…. dumb luck.
Go back to that chart at the top. This outage happened on a Monday. Monday is a busy day for the airline, but you know what’s not? Tuesday. MasFlight tracked 478 flights on Monday but only 319 on Tuesday, and that absolutely makes it a whole lot easier to recover.
Apparently, if you combine luck with a solid plan, you can recover quickly. Go figure.