Frontier and Spirit’s Unlikely Spat in Phoenix

Frontier, Spirit

Ed Note: Spirit apparently filed these new Kansas City routes before Frontier’s announcement, but due to a data glitch, it wasn’t loaded. So… keep that in mind as you read this.

I’ve been watching Frontier’s route changes very closely as of late. My assumption is that with JetBlue beginning the process of eliminating Spirit as an ultra-low fare competitor, Frontier wants to be ready to swoop in to make sure it is the biggest beneficiary. Frontier has made a few changes that we’ve covered in Cranky Network Basics and Cranky Network Weekly, but now I want to talk about the airline’s latest turn… it’s making a move on Phoenix and Spirit seems to care… a little.

Phoenix is a market that does best in the winter, so it’s no surprise to see Frontier adding 10 new routes to the airport beginning in December and January. I figured this would be a good thing to look at using Great Circle Mapper — because everything is better with Great Circle mapper — so let’s start with Frontier’s Phoenix network for this December before the announcement.

Old Frontier PHX Dec 2022 Routes generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz.

And now, here’s the network with the new routes that Frontier announced in blue.

New Frontier PHX Dec 2022 Routes generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz.

That is a lot of new routes, and what’s even more interesting is that many of them don’t follow the traditional sub-daily pattern that Frontier has followed. Philly, Orange County, Fort Lauderdale, and BWI are all flown daily.

On the surface, this looks like a move not against Spirit but rather against American and Southwest which have been battling out their Phoenix rivalry for eons. (Ok, maybe not eons, but for more than 30 years when it was America West vs Southwest.) American is obviously a legacy airline which has been pushing pretty high fares this summer. Southwest likes to position itself as a low fare leader, but with the all-in bundle strategy that Southwest uses for even its lowest fare, that is no longer the case as it used to be.

Having those two battle each other with fares going higher means Frontier has opportunity. Few of these markets are huge Frontier stations, except Philly of course. This looks a lot like Frontier just trying to skim off the top in these markets and hope the other two don’t care.

But then yesterday, a twist. Spirit has decided that it cares, sort of. Up until now, the only overlap markets the two had from Phoenix were Las Vegas and Dallas/Fort Worth. But now, Spirit will not only launch Kansas City – Phoenix in November, but it will go double-daily on Kansas City – Las Vegas in September.

In other words, it’s not that Spirit cares about Phoenix so much, but it cares about a certain subset of markets to Phoenix. Really, it seems to care about the Midwest to Phoenix. To see what I mean, take a look at this route map showing Spirit’s Midwest routes to the west of the Rockies.

Spirit Midwest – West of Rockies Dec 2022 Routes generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz.

And now, here’s what Frontier had before this Phoenix expansion.

Frontier Midwest – West of Rockies Dec 2022 Routes generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz.

Sure, both are all over Las Vegas, but notice just how sparse Frontier is in Phoenix from the Midwest. It has Cleveland and Chicago/Midway, both cities that are or have been a focus at some point. But now Frontier will add in Minneapolis/St Paul, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. Spirit is in MSP already, but that’s not really its market to defend. And while it does fly to Indianapolis more than it does to Kansas City, it’s Kansas City that it seems more interested in defending.

So what is it about Kansas City? That’s hard to say. One thing that is worth noting is that the airport’s new terminal will open next spring. It has been a very challenging airport from a design/utility standpoint, and that will change when the new terminal opens. But it will also bring higher costs to the airport. Maybe Spirit sees some opportunity here to do some sort of land grab to get all the gates it could ever possibly want.

I’d love to say this is some sort of secret plot by JetBlue to get Spirit to gather enough space so that JetBlue can really move in after the merger… but c’mon. That’s not what’s happening here. This is Kansas City, not LaGuardia. JetBlue could grow there if it wanted. I can’t imagine it needs to do something illegal (coordinating with Spirit before the merger is done) just to corner the Kansas City market.

This is probably more about Spirit just deciding there was more opportunity in Kansas City and it had the aircraft time to make it work. I’m not sure if this sends any kind of warning shot to Frontier. If it does, it’s like a bb gun at worst. Frontier won’t care.

Or maybe this is just the first shot of an upcoming war as Spirit continues to try to run its airline until the JetBlue deal gets done. That would sure make the next year or so a whole lot of fun.

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30 comments on “Frontier and Spirit’s Unlikely Spat in Phoenix

  1. Question: Have JetBlue and Spirit offered any sort of timeline in reference to gaining acquisition approval, with or without NEA changes? As an aside, I believe JetBlue’s focus on courting Spirit has detrimentally affected both their operational and financial performance.

      1. That certainly gives time to strategize multiple scenarios, including the deployment of acquired assets balanced across the NEA outcome. Unlike the Big 3, JetBlue has not acquired the critical mass to be considered “too big to fail.” To a financial and operational extent, they have gone “all in” with the Spirit purchase. I admire their….ummm…moxey…..and wish them well.

  2. “I’d love to say this is some sort of secret plot by JetBlue to get Spirit to gather enough space so that JetBlue can really move in after the merger… but c’mon. That’s not what’s happening here. This is Kansas City, not LaGuardia. JetBlue could grow there if it wanted. I can’t imagine it needs to do something illegal (coordinating with Spirit before the merger is done) just to corner the Kansas City market.”

    c’mon Cranky! You can say it. We all know you are aware of the history of Denver’s airport – so why not KC. Makes for a great storyline. LOL

    1. Adam – Yep, you’re right. I heard from someone this morning telling me that it only hasn’t been loaded into Cirium data because of some glitch.
      So that’s why I hadn’t seen it. So… yeah, not really all that great of a post!

    1. Frontier has been at PHX forever. They tried Mesa for a while in 2012 or 2013, but it was short-lived

  3. Living in the Midwest, I can tell you that there’s a nearly unlimited well of demand for ULCC-type service between ORD/MDW/MKE and PHX. But….that’s between December and April. It dries up the rest of the year. Makes this a somewhat challenging market for the ULCCs. The big mainline airlines (and I’ll count WN here) do fine treating PHX as the big western market it is for O&D and (for AA and WN) connections. Those are pretty stable routes. But there’s this huge extra demand during the winter from the Midwest to (especially) PHX. So, the market is there for budget-conscious fliers who want to get away from the frigid weather and see a Cactus League game or two. But it rally only exists for maybe 3-4 months.

    1. Is there some sort of line across the Midwest that denotes whether someone winters in Arizona versus Florida?

      1. I don’t think it’s super consistent (just look at all the flights from MSP/MKE to FL during the winter), but I’d suggest that if such a line does exist (and if it runs mostly north/south), it might be near the Mississippi, or on either side of IL.

        Different parts of Florida also tend to attract people from different parts of the country… For example, I suspect that Midwesterners (MI, IL, etc) tend to over-index on FL’s Gulf coast than on the Atlantic coast, while it may be the opposite for those from the Northeast, but I may be wrong.

        1. I wonder if FL/AZ preference may be driven in part by health reasons – whether or not you prefer humid or arid, or is one is better/worse for ones health. I can think of two conditions, respiratory and arthritis, that can be affected by humidity. I’m sure there are many others.

          1. Florida isn’t that humid in the winter or spring (unlike say, now, when I’d give a lot to be somewhere where it’s not bloody hot and humid for a few days. Nunavut, perhaps, or the Falkland Islands? Tasmania?

            I suspect it’s mainly driven by whether or not beach access is important to a given visitor, if you’re taking grandchildren to shower the Mouse with money, that sort of thing. Until you get out to the westernmost part of the plains, the flying time isn’t really that much different, especially if you’re going to stay a while.

      2. Yeah, it splits Michigan in half. The eastern part of Michigan can hop on I-75 and head down to FL.

      3. IL/WI/MN definitely prefer the FL Gulf Coast and AZ. Lots and lots of people who retire here end up in FL or AZ. It’s not like the east coast where sun-seekers overwhelmingly head to FL; out here it’s more evenly split between FL and AZ. But that kind of travel is highly seasonal, which is what Frontier would be going after.

      4. Probably the Mississippi. In Wisconsin, it is almost a mandate that one head to Florida. If it’s the panhandle, you drive. If not, you fly.

      5. Minnesota/Iowa/The Dakota’s/western WI definitely lean towards Arizona. Of course, PHX is actually closer to MSP than MCO or MIA is. Minnesotans that do go to FL tend to go to TPA and especially RSW, almost no one goes to South Florida and even MCO is not particularly popular for snowbirds. MSP-RSW is so popular that it sees DL widebodies and 3-4x daily Sun Country flights in the winter.

    2. I live in a small city in the Midwest, South Bend. For air service we have the Express/Eagle/Connections RJ to major hubs plus allegiant to LAS and Mesa (year-round, nearly flew out to California via a night in Vegas on two separate tickets this summer since it was actually cheaper than driving to O’Hare for Spirit’s non-stop, thought better of it because we didn’t want to miss the memorial service that was the main purpose of the trip), and 4 Florida Airports (Stanford – only one not on the golf coast: PIE, SRQ, FGD).

      Looking at nearby similar cities with similarly sized Airports:
      Fort Wayne (closer than Chicago from us) – same type of RJ service – plus Allegiant service to the same airports and seasonal to Myrtle Beach
      Toledo (just east down the Toll Road) – about to be the only airline service, since American Eagle is pulling out – Mesa only, plus 3 Florida Airports (except SRQ). Toledo is the most eastern point (kind of in a line with Flint and Cincinnati that Allegiant flies from Mesa.

      Grand Rapids is the airport that South Bend aspires to be. Pre-pandemic there was a big campaign called Project Propel (the website is still online) to get local business to put in their personal policies that employees when traveling for business, must fly out of South Bend instead of Chicago unless the cost difference is more than $300, it was directly modeled from a policy of Grand Rapids businesses used to do the same thing to avoid employees driving to DTW.

  4. Most people in the Northeast go to Florida. The Midwest is more split between Florida and Arizona, with more people from Chicago Milwaukee West going to Arizona and people in Michigan being more likely to go to Florida.

    That’s just in general

    1. Transportation history can tell you a lot about where northerners go for their winter vacation. Look at the rail lines and federal highways:
      – New Englanders taking the train down the coast to the Flagler-built hotels, and then US 1 and I-95
      – Midwesterners taking US 23 or 41, and then Interstates 65 and 75 to the Florida Gulf Coast
      – Alternately, Midwesterners could go West taking the Super Chief to Arizona and the West Coast, or drive US 66. (How else could they see the Cubs or Indians/Guardians in Spring training?)

  5. A lot of people don’t like Frontier, but I actually like Frontier more than Southwest, AA and UA.
    Frontier is very efficient, but my favorite airlines are Alaska and Delta !

    1. You must not be tall. If you were, you wouldn’t be preferring Frontier’s knee crushing and back ruining seats over Southwest’s generous pitch.

      1. WN isn’t generous on -700s. 31″ throughout since awhile ago. -800s/MAXes are better of course but they aren’t the majority of flights.

        By contrast, on Frontier you can buy up to Stretch on every plane, which is a perfectly fine product.

  6. With AA’s continued struggles with Mesa and Pilot staffing, the cuts in PHX continues this Fall/ early Winter.

    For example During the first 2 weeks of Dec, PHX-BUR/ SJC will be at 2 flights; PHX-SMF will be 3 Eagle flights. (WTF?) And PHX-DEN will see 2 Eagle flights(The final schedule after 12/15 hasn’t been loaded yet).

    Meanwhile over at WN, it’s PHX flights are packed from 530a thru 1000p.

    So AA is just begging for competitors to swoop in and steal customers.

  7. A bit of history: America West began flying in August of 1983. That’s 39 years ago (closer to 40, not 30) if my math is correct. Southwest was already flying from Phoenix back then. It’s also rather interesting how an airport can go from one that’s virtually guaranteed to be dehubbed into one that draws so much traffic from multiple airlines. Will all of this new service stick? Only time will tell.

    1. Phoenix is the nation’s 5th largest city (soon to be 4th) and the 10th largest metro area. Toss in Tucson due to their poor air service, and PHX moves to 9th largest metro. The new service will stick.

  8. Cranky – does Southwest serve all the new cities that Frontier & Spirit are adding from PHX?
    Not likely they will want too much competition on these routes, particularly if they are already competing with American on any of them.

  9. Can you please tell me how do you generate the GCmap multicolor drawings on transparent/white background?

    1. George – You just scroll down to the bottom where the list of controls are. There’s “Style” and you can select white.

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