Frontier and Spirit Both March on Atlanta

Frontier, Mergers/Finance, Spirit

With Spirit and Frontier coming together, everyone has focused on all the similarities… and to be fair, there are many. But the differences are also very telling. There is no place more interesting to see this dynamic than in Atlanta where both airlines have a large and growing operation.

Atlanta, of course, is the home to Delta’s massive hub and home base. Atlanta is the hub of airline dreams. It has a massive local market with a wealth of Fortune 500 companies to fill airplanes. It is also an ideally-located hub to feed the bottomless pit of demand that is Florida. Its current terminal layout which opened in 1980 is as good as it gets for a mega hub. With this, Delta has built a true monster of an operation.

In the past, there have been plenty of competitors in the market. After Eastern failed in early 1991, it was only a couple years until Valujet showed up. That airline was wildly successful, eventually becoming AirTran and proving to be a big thorn in Delta’s side. If Delta had any concerns once Southwest snapped up AirTran in 2011, it shouldn’t have. Southwest de-emphasized Atlanta quickly, keeping it as an important spoke and destination as part of its network but not the low fare be-all, end-all that it was under AirTran.

AirTran was at its peak carrying about a third of the local Atlanta passengers Delta carried domestically (according to Cirium DB1B data) and over 20 percent of what Delta carried out of Atlanta overall, including connections (according to Cirium T100 data). By 2019, Southwest was carrying about a quarter of the local traffic that Delta was taking, and its overall traffic was just over 10% of Delta’s.

Though Delta let AirTran in originally, it has been a fierce defender of the hub more often than not. Remember that second airport that they were working on in Atlanta? Delta had it murdered. Some of that red-tail ruthlessness has certainly lived on.

% of ATL Departing Traffic by Year

Data via Cirium T-100

Fortunately for Frontier and Spirit, they don’t much care about that. Frontier has served Atlanta for ages, but originally mostly as a spoke from its Denver hub before it became a ULCC. Spirit entered the market in 2006. In that chart above, you can see those small slivers of green and yellow in the upper right. That still barely makes a dent, but with ultra low costs, both of these airlines think they can make a go of it under Delta’s high fare canopy. And schedules are increasingly rapidly for both airlines coming out of the pandemic.

It was 2013 when Frontier first ventured out beyond Denver with flights to Trenton. It added 5 more cities the next year, and as you’d expect with Frontier, there has been constant shifting of the actual destinations served. Frontier peaked in 2016, but then it pulled back. It came back in a big way in 2021, and it plans to be a whole lot bigger in 2022 with more than 30 destinations.

The only destinations that have been served every year since 2015? Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Miami, New York/LaGuardia, Orlando, Salt Lake, San Francisco, and yes, good ole’ Trenton. Those are actually a pretty good representation of Frontier’s sweet spot. It does a lot of West Coast, Northeast, and Florida/Caribbean.

Frontier and Spirit July 2022 Route Map From Atlanta

Frontier (Green) and Spirit (Yellow) Atlanta Routes via Cirum

As the map shows, Spirit also does the Northeast, but it has a much bigger presence in the Midwest and Texas than Frontier. The route map is actually rather complementary, but it also beefs up flying to common cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Houston/IAH, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Tampa.

The service pattern between the two airlines, however, is totally different.

Frontier and Spirit Departing Seats and Destinations From Atlanta

Data via Cirum – 2022 not full year for Spirit

Spirit has a significantly higher frequency, and that’s where in this merger things will have to sort themselves out. I imagine we will continue to see Spirit’s high frequency pattern to the main markets in Florida and the Northeast. But you can then imagine Frontier’s lower frequency model layering in to serve other destinations. Together, it makes for an impressive footprint.

Atlanta is particularly interesting in this combined network since it is one of the few crew bases for both airlines. Frontier opened its crew base in late 2021 while Spirit just announced it will open a base in Atlanta later this year. They are both obviously very bullish and have plans to grow. Opening a crew base means Frontier is less likely to make a quick reversal in plans as it often does elsewhere.

Delta won’t like this, and it will undoubtedly try to be competitive. But with costs as low as Spirit and Frontier have, Delta will probably have a tough time keeping them down without diluting its own business. Frontier and Spirit are now big enough — and will have even more heft together — that the horse has already left the barn.

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35 comments on “Frontier and Spirit Both March on Atlanta

  1. Tremendous example of how this merger could create the kind of ULCC powerhouse in the US that has not existed here previously.

    Instead of having two smaller players nibbling around the margins of most people’s consciousness, it will have the size and scale to make a real impact in major markets like Atlanta as well as the smaller markets that are their current bread and butter.

    Especially since WN long ago abdicated any notion of truly low fares (except in their advertising of course).

    1. I honestly don’t think he’ll care. DL’s core ATL customers are not going to be swayed by daily or sub daily service aboard planes with 29 inch seat pitches.

      If Spirtier (copyright applied for) is going to
      be successful, they will fill these ATL seats at prices that DL is simply not interested in matching. Might DL lose a couple percentage points on load factors where Spirtier is flying? Maybe but it certainly won’t be enough for them to consider responding with fare matches.

      1. Bill – great name for the new, combined airline. And, who knows, maybe they will make you an offer for the name?!?!

        And, agree with your other comments as well. Not likely that Spiritier will make a significant impact in the early years, and not likely that DL would take any competitive measures unless Spiritier hit at least 10% market share overall.

    2. Back when I worked at Delta, we prayed that something like this would happen. This is a huge strategic victory for the only airline you should ever fly because it validates their choice of Atlanta as a megahub. Did you see the FAA data that conclusively shows that Frontier and Spirit only steal customers from each other? That means this will actually lead to more customers for Delta because this will frighten United to the point that they will abandon Georgia altogether (and why does American even have an operating certificate? Their planes are literally being held together with spit and bailing twine — the only thing that can make them safe to fly is a team of Delta mechanics!). I know for a fact that United will abandon Atlanta-Hartsfield within six months. Also, did you see all of the flow that United is running through Denver these days? The fact that United can run so many connections through Denver just goes to show how strong and essential the Delta hub in Salt Lake City is. Anyone that doesn’t see this as a massive strategic victory for Delta should check their bias at the door and stay off the Internet.

      1. I picture this being delivered on TV by the North Korean lady who used to bounce up and down in sheer rapturous excitement.

  2. In the merger filings, Frontier/Spirit noted its interest in expanding to underserved markets and specifically mentioned Worcester, MA. What routes do you think that service might include?

    1. Possible cities that the NK/F9 merger would consider , since DL has the vice grip on most of these cities might be :

      HSV , BHM, MEM, MGM , TLH , PNS , TYS , BNA , LEX , CAE , JAX , DCA , LIT , OKC , SAT , ILM , HPN , BGR , Worcester MA ,

      WN serves many of these cities but not considered an ULCC .

    2. Didn’t Massport twist B6’s arm into providing some service from Worcester a few years back?

      1. ORH is currently served by jetBlue with twice daily to JFK and once daily to FLL, Delta with once daily to LGA and American with once daily to JFK.

        1. Something tells me if there was any ORH to Florida potential, B6 would already be all over it. Just having a single flight to FLL speaks volumes IMO.

    1. Haha old school ATL flyers still refer to the moving walkway connection between C and D as the Eastern Shortcut!

        1. I remember walking through the tunnel once Eastern shut down in the early 90s. Concourse C was a ghost town. It was freaky. Reminded me of Dawn of the Dead where they hole up in the shopping mall.

        2. Dammit, of course! Typing faster than I was thinking I guess. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Wonder if this will start a merger trend that will include Allegiant, Jet Blue and Alaska?

    1. I can’t imagine Allegiant, Jetblue, and Alaska merging. Completely different business models for at least one of them

  4. Cranky – what is the available gate situation at ATL now? Does Spirit / Frontier have any long term room for growth to make a significant impact at ATL?

      1. There isn’t a lot of space. Currently 5 new gates are under construction on the north side (AA/UA) of Concourse T. AA could possibly relocate there from Concourse D.

  5. Georgians have a very odd relationship with Delta and ATL. They are simultaneously very proud to have the world’s busiest airport, but aghast at what it costs them to fly anywhere. My ATL-based family were asking for help finding reasonable tickets to Europe this summer and about all I can say is “Well I wouldn’t start in Atlanta.”

  6. I agree with the mob that DL dosent care too much. They are not loosing traffic; they are just missing out of a demographic that they have never cared about. I don’t have access to numbers but i bet the “economy minus, minus” crowd costs more in marketing, labor & IT archecture costs than any incremental revenue it brings in.

    AirTran was a true competitor towards the end. The hard & soft products in short/medium haul markets were negligible. Both had “F” class. MD88 vs MD90….errrrr 717. People flying for commission or on a retainer didn’t care about an over crowded lounge access, cold sandwich in F going up to LGA or ‘free’ trip to BCN that may happen before their retirement. WN knocking FL out was a gift to DL.

  7. ATL has always been a two hub city; Eastern’s failure led to an opening for AirTran which was acquired by Southwest which has historically not done well in legacy carrier hubs unless it dominates that hub – as is the case in Denver where Southwest carries more local Denver passengers than United. They are a higher cost carrier than AirTran and have less impact on Delta because DL at ATL is so efficient.
    Many of the Frontier and Spirit routes are daily or less than daily; there is a big difference in serving a route which Delta serves 8-15 times per day vs. less than daily.
    DTW has one of the highest ULCC shares in a legacy carrier hub and yet it also has some of the highest local average market fares, indicating that DL and ULCCs do coexist and achieve their own goals. NK is reducing capacity in a number of DTW markets indicating that DL does successfully “limit” the amount of economy minus minus traffic that ULCCs can take.
    If CF continued the ATL share chart above through the present, it would show that AA and UA’s ATL share has fallen. ULCCs look for “holes” in markets and fill them; much of their share gains have come from other carriers, esp. in DL hubs. A perfect example is ATL-LAX which WN no longer serves (IIRC) and AA has fewer flights than it did pre-covid (DL has also reduced its capacity DFW-LAX, coincidentally).
    DL’s gauge (average aircraft size) in ATL is the highest among legacy carrier hubs which means they can sell more seats on 739s and 321s competitive with ULCCs which is precisely why F9 is pulling back in many DTW markets.
    When the F9/NK merger is approved there will be one set of crew bases; NK simply wants to grow now.
    ATL meets federal gate access requirements for new carriers but those rules don’t require that existing carriers including F9 and NK can keep getting more gates. BNA is a perfect example of an airport that keeps getting new carriers which prevents existing carriers from growing. DL has gates in ATL for over 1000 flights/day.
    The real competitive threat of the NK/F9 merger is at airports such as PHL and MIA where they are growing at the expense of the hub carrier and not other carriers.

    1. There he is: “The real competitive threat of the NK/F9 merger is at airports such as PHL and MIA where they are growing at the expense of the hub carrier and not other carriers.” AA has lost zero gates at ATL. I assume UA either. Any market share is due to delta upgauging to larger planes which shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s their strategy.

      Paraphrase: “Delta will never be threatened in atl; Hub carriers and ULCCs can easily coexist, just look at DTW. But at AA hubs, everything I just said doesn’t apply.”

      You never cease to amuse.
      Did you take a day off? You’re a tad late to the comments.

      1. Julie.

        I must be fair to the real Tim Dunn (as opposed to his fake and faker clones above). Until the last sentence, he did make some fairly cogent points. Atlanta has been a multi-airline hub for much of its history, even if the competitors weren’t always large relative to Delta. Tim mentioned Denver as another example of a multi-airline hub/focus city, but completely ignores Phoenix, where America West/US Airways/American and Southwest have gone head-to-head for almost 40 years. Southwest entered Phoenix before America West started its operations, yet somehow, amazingly, that uppity little airline has managed to successfully compete with the second most perfect airline in the country (i.e., Southwest) that whole time. Tim also conveniently ignored the fact that Southwest tried to muscle in on US Airways in Philadelphia, and pulled out with its corporate tail between its legs.

        American has always had robust competition in South Florida. It’s simply been up the road at Fort Lauderdale. But of course, that fact is brushed under the table by the real Tim Dunn. Miami has lowered its fees, so more airlines feel they’re able to compete there. That’s great for everyone, especially people who live in Miami. But, as with Delta in Atlanta, the other airlines in Miami will probably be little more than a nuisance to American, if for no reason but geography. Atlanta is almost perfectly located for a domestic airline hub. Miami simply isn’t. But a little healthy competition never hurt anyone – even a perfect airline that operates in Atlanta and Detroit.

        Tim’s comments almost make me think he wants to see American liquidated, as he tends to pick on it ceaselessly, as opposed to United, which he only criticizes on occasion. The challenges the airline industry is facing probably won’t last forever, but many people (in fairness, Tim is NOT among them) are kvetching (the perfect Yiddish word to describe the pubic reaction to almost everything these days) as if the events in the news are permanent. let’s hope they aren’t – for everyone’s sake. Even now, on, there are quite a few commentators who are predicting that American will be liquidated soon, and are dividing the carcass between Delta and United. Sick.

        1. I have no control of what other people say including on other sites.
          It is premature to talk about liquidation of any airline esp. since the chances of liquidation over a successful bankruptcy restructuring are very low. Given that Hunter Keay, airline analyst w/ Wolfe Research, forecast that United would burn $6 billion in cash this year, 1/3 higher than he forecast for American at $4.4 billion even though American is a larger airline, talk about United picking up American’s pieces are simply detached from reality. United has been by far the most impacted by the RJ capacity cuts and also planned an aggressive international expansion which will be much less profitable, if at all.
          For the zillionth time, no, I do not want to see AA or any other liquidated.
          I also noted that WN does poorly in legacy carrier hubs of which PHL is one. Their success in PHX and LAS, like Florida, is driven by the leisure nature of the market, also where ULCCs do well.
          Data shows that ULCC growth in ATL has been at the expense of other carriers besides Delta and that will continue to be the case. Southwest has virtually no growth capacity this year and ULCCs would love to gain a much bigger share of ATL given that NK has proven they can coexist w/ DL in DTW at much higher shares than they have now.
          Whether airlines have lost gates or not is not indicative of whether they have lost share. AA and UA and WN are all smaller sharewise in ATL.
          NK/F9’s growth in MIA is significant because they will easily displace DL as the second largest carrier and are expanding into Latin America where AA has faced very little direct low cost competition. And NK is not leaving FLL either so they will have a stronger presence from both major S. Florida airports.
          AA intentionally pulled PHL down in order to grow JFK as part of the B6 partnership. F9 esp. jumped at the opportunity.
          NK is also growing longhaul domestic from EWR.
          As much as some might want to believe otherwise, ULCC growth rather than replacement of other carrier capacity is primarily coming in AA and WN hubs.

          1. “For the zillionth time, no, I do not want to see AA or any other liquidated.”

            Tim – With all due respect, much of your writing here and elsewhere implies otherwise. It’s more of a matter of semantics than substance. I don’t think you really want to see American or any other airline liquidated, but your over-the-top rhetoric sometimes makes it sound that way. Enough written on that topic.

            I really don’t think any airlines will file for Chapter 11 in the near future, much less be liquidated. As long as there’s enough positive cash flow over the long haul to service the debt the various airlines have, they’ll get through these short-term rough patches. Delta’s debt is lower than its legacy peers because it’s been generally better managed overall for a longer period of time. Delta didn’t defer investing in its business when it really had to over the years, while others, notably American, did just that, and is now paying the price. But that’s not the fault of the current management, as much as some want to lay all of the blame there. I’ve flown American many times over a long period of time, and the “great” airline some American fans tout simply didn’t exist in the years following 9/11. At least that’s my experience.

            The same overall observation is true, I believe, when it comes to United. It’s taking a different approach than Delta or American with its overall fleet plan, but it’s following the recent trend to upgauge its fleet.

            United isn’t Delta. Neither is American. To also repeat myself for the zillionth time, it’s not a crime for a company to have a somewhat different business model than its competitors. And airlines can’t be judged solely on last quarter’s results or DOT data.

  8. 3 US legislators (Senators Warren and Sanders and Rep. AOC) have asked the DOJ to carefully review the merger proposal noting that the ULCC segment in the US could become too concentrated to be a meaningful competitor to the big 4. They also note that NK/F9 combined would be the #1 or #2 carrier in 8 of their top 10 largest markets markets, mostly leisure airports.

  9. The big question is, will Frontier even stay at MDW once they re-start service there? Spirit has a large operation at ORD and Frontier a smaller operation at ORD.

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