Frontier Plans Shift to an Out-and-Back European Operation Model


Frontier may have revenue problems, as we discussed last week. But here’s the thing about revenue problems… they are a lot less of a problem if your costs keep going down too. While Frontier tackles its revenue issues, it’s also tackling costs. These aren’t just little tweaks either. The airline is planning on switching its operating model.

European ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) tend to operate in similar ways to each other. They set up multiple bases all around the network and they have airplanes and crews go out and back from that base, spending the night at the home base each night.

This is apparently harder to do in the US than in Europe. On the Q3 earnings call, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said that in Europe airlines can open bases with just a couple of airplanes. That’s not possible here in the US because the strict crew reserve requirements would make staffing levels too difficult for such a small operation. This doesn’t mean the model doesn’t work in the US, but it needs bigger bases to thrive.

Allegiant has done this since the dawn of time, and its bases do tend to be larger when you think about Las Vegas, Orlando/Sanford, and others. Now, Frontier says it needs to do this more. It does some of it now, but it is looking to make the vast majority of its network operate using this model in the future. This will help the airline isolate weather or ATC issues in a small piece of the network instead of impacting the whole thing.

Some of the bases are obvious. Of course we’ll see bases in Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Tampa. Those are crew bases today and except for Miami, are the airline’s largest stations. But there will undoubtedly be more opening in smaller cities where the airline has enough heft.

So how will this work? Well, I went and looked at some airplanes a couple weeks ago and found two great examples. Let’s start with the regular model that Frontier has been using so far:

Betty the Bluebird started off her week with a Sunday night flight in from Denver to Portland (OR) where she stayed overnight. The next day involved going back to Denver, roundtrip to Fargo, and roundtrip to Houston, spending the night back in Denver. For that day, Betty was basically a Denver-based aircraft.

On Tuesday, Betty moved on to Orlando where she flew roundtrip to San Juan and Baltimore, spending the night back in Orlando, this time acting as an Orlando-based aircraft.

On Wednesday, she flew up to Philly did a roundtrip to Sarasota and Nashville before spending the night in Philly, this time pretending to be a Philly-based airplane.

Finally, on Thursday, she came down to Tampa, and then did a roundtrip to Aguadilla and Buffalo before spending the night in Tampa which means, you guessed it, she was a Tampa-based airplane that day.

This is a lot of moving around, and as you can see in the map above, it covers the whole country. So what happens if on Wednesday, there’s a bad ATC day in the northeast and Philly is messed up? Crews time out, flights are delayed, and now Frontier has to tell someone in Tampa that they can’t get to Aguadilla because a flight from Orlando to Philly was delayed the day before. (I mean, let’s be honest. There’s no way Frontier is telling people this or much of anything about why planes are delayed, but that would be the reality.)

The same thing can happen if a snowstorm hits Denver or a Nor’easter hits the Northeast. This airplane is everywhere and one messed up link in the chain could ruin the whole plan.

If Frontier keeps airplanes and crews operating from specific bases, it erases much of that uncertainty. We need to look no further than Peachy to understand.

Peachy the Fox started her day in Miami on Monday, October 24 when Betty was in Portland. But Peachy stayed remarkably consistent, only visiting four airports during her week of hopping around. Part of this is because Miami is a small base, so there aren’t that many options. But that’s really the point.

For Peachy, a snowstorm in Denver does nothing. Even a hurricane in Tampa has no impact. Instead, Peachy has to worry only about Miami weather and whatever lies on the other end.

This is a more simple model, but honestly, it’s probably not even where Frontier wants to go. I would imagine Frontier’s goal would be to base more planes in Philly so that those could handle the sun routes from there. This way it would keep Miami’s performance to other locations in a better place if it doesn’t have to get stuck in the congested northeast airports where delays are by far the worst.

Having the airplane start out in the same place in the morning and ending in the same place at night also adds to the simplicity. The crews can be built up in the base. Before a crew leaves Miami, they can know that they’ll be doing roundtrips. Eventually they will get home that day, barring a really nasty delay. And it saves on hotel costs for Frontier as well.

It might end up being boring for the crewmembers, but they would probably rather be bored than stuck somewhere far from home due to air traffic control delays.

With a more simple operation, Frontier can then improve utilization, and not have to worry about having as much buffer throughout its network. Local weather patterns can help determine how much aircraft can be scheduled during any particular season. For example, it can probably go heavy on utilization in Phoenix most of the year, but from in Q3 when monsoons kick up, Frontier may want to add more buffer and position more reserve crews. It becomes much easier to isolate the operation into a bunch of different tiny operations.

Whether this will work for Frontier or not, I have no idea. It has already done some of this, so it knows what it’s getting into. But having fewer airplanes running through any single node makes it harder to disrupt the entire airline. That’s good for customers, and it’s good for Frontier.

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37 comments on “Frontier Plans Shift to an Out-and-Back European Operation Model

  1. Good article ! Every time I read about Frontier Livery and Tail Numbers, I’m reminded of the sweet story about Grace, who flies on Frontier Tail # N228FR (Livery on the Tail is “Orville the Red Cardinal”). If you’re not familiar, it’s easy to Google, amazing story about Grace (in more ways than one)…

  2. Could AA, DL & UA apply some of the same techniques? Or does their massive scale prevent such a transformation.

    1. I have the same question. Then I was wondering isn’t this what their regional subsidiaries do? For the mainline, with more aircrafts and types etc, it probably is more efficient, mathematically in an ideal world, for them to do what they are doing, so they can balance the uneven demand (both pax and cargo, plus some charter), seasonality, maintenance etc while maximizing aircraft utilization.

      1. I think most regional planes go out and back from the same hub. However, I think that most planes spend the night at an outstation and then have an early morning flight back to the hub, which requires that the crew spend a night in the hotel. But, that’s the model for business travelers.

        1. As much as being the model for business travellers a bunch of 6 AM regional flights feed the ~8 or 9 AM bank at the hub. 6 AM departures from hubs would have little or no feed and wouldn’t be feeding anything at the outstation. Without operating connecting hubs, Frontier doesn’t have to worry about that.

  3. Why are airlines not doing this already ? Complexity in any organisation always increases costs and the risks of things going wrong. That’s not to say one should avoid doing things – but one does not want complexity if if has little or no benefit. Ryanair does this in a big way – and makes a huge quantity of money as an LCC. I’m surprised other airlines in North America are not asking themselves what they can copy from Ryanair.

    1. I was wondering the same thing, at least at it pertains to ULCCs. Why weren’t they doing this already? Just to have more scheduling flexibility? Seems like anything that decreases costs and complexity is something a ULCC should have already been doing.

    2. Out and back flights have been the norm for the US3 for years, specifically around congested, challenging airspace like the Northeast. DL, UA, and AA all do it.

      1. Yes, I thought most of the majors restructured, to varying degrees, a back and fourth model to reduce complexities associated with a more integrated routing model. On that spectrum, I think Southwest is the one carrier that is the outlier due to its network composition.

    3. From personal experience, I know that mainline UA does a lot of this; at least from ORD. They’ll do out and backs on seemingly most routes that are in the 1-3.5 hour range (if not longer). Seems to work well for them, I seldom deal with delays on such routings. The multi-city hops are the ones where you’ll often end up with cascading delays by later in the afternoon. Out and backs only have issues if one of the airports in question has a problem (weather, traffic, etc).

  4. This will be terrible for any commuter pilots at Frontier. It will most likely require the commuters to have a travel day before and after each trip and also have a crash pad in base on their own dime.

      1. Yes but that’s not what pilots in the United States are used to. 50% commuters isn’t unreasonable

        1. Lots of people have to move where their job is based. And if they still want to commute from out of the way places, there are other airlines. And F9 can most likely find plenty of pilots willing to live in their base cities.

            1. Did you see the recent note to FedEx pilots telling them they can go fly for a regional of AA because they are getting the bare minimum of hours currently at FedEx due to decreased cargo demand? F9 >>> PSA or Endeavor.

          1. That’s my point…They will have increased attrition on current commuters and reduced recruiting opportunities for prospective commuters. I think this minimizes their selling point as a stepping stone between regionals and mainline.

  5. “That’s not possible here in the US because the strict crew reserve requirements would make staffing levels too difficult for such a small operation.”

    Cranky, can you elaborate on that? Who makes those requirements and why don’t European airlines have the same? I assume without sufficient reserve staffing flights would get canceled, which isn’t in the interest of any airline.

    1. Oliver – I wish I could, but I don’t actually know, This was just Barry Biffle’s commentary about why it was the case.

  6. I agree with the premise that F9’s network is not setup well for a low cost model. As a network planner, I never understood how it worked efficiently. But the premise of your argument about Betty is a little off. Most of the trips that tail flew were roundtrips. The concern for F9 is the amouint of linear travel; the same issue that snarled WN last winter. Those trips are impossible to recover from because you need to cancel full lines of flying and strand crews all over. Roundtrips are easy to recover from because you just cancel the full turn. The crew and A/C stay in base. You need to rotate A/C through the system for MX so isolating A/C specifically to one city forever is not a good solution, because if one A/C goes OOS, you can end up canceling flights for multiple days in one city, or reducing ops reliability in one city if you are swapping in a spare. Plus, different MX activities are performed at different stations. Finally, it’s not feasible to RON A/C only in bases and not outstations because airports are frankly running out of RON parking.

    1. Interesting insight, thanks very much for your perspective as a planner

  7. Brett, one other thing that Frontier may realize by implementing such a model is the reduction in overnight crew expenses. If, for example, you have a crew that completes a round-trip from MIA to PHL or DIA to BOS in a day, they would likely be close to maxing out in hours after the return leg, but they would be at their home base, so no hotel required.

    It seems as if Frontier is now in survival mode, since the Spirit merger isn’t happening any time soon. I believe that they will get another shot at Spirit, given the DOJ’s apparent dislike for JetBlue. Current mode of strategy is… ‘let’s aim the dart at xx (pick a part, any part of the ULCC model from various airlines around the world) and see where it sticks this time!’

  8. A few thoughts: as a crew member I can’t understate what a huge curveball this is to QOL and earnings. If someone is local to their base and 5+ years in.,’s great. They have established roots and adapted their lifestyle to match income. DEN, PHL, MIA, LAS even TTN are not cheap places to live. Newer people rely on that several hundred dollars in per diem. This will definitely step up the attrition figures but I wonder if it’s intentional? Cut the headcount with voluntary separations and not get into messy furloughs and mass unemployment claims.

    Every ULCC in the US (and I believe Canada) operate on the Ryanair model because their demographic is leisure and not the biz person who needs to get to EWR at 6am on a Monday. It’s not workable for the Big 3 + WN because of the scope of their networks but it’s not necessary because of the hub/spoke infrastructure. Plenty of opportunity to rob Peter to pay Paul with equipment and crew swaps to protect the operation…….in theory. Of course when it fails, it fails spectacularly.

  9. A few things – first, this new operational model will have an impact on revenue as well. If you can get passengers there on time (or close to it) with their bag, they will forgive you a lot of other things.

    Frontier and Spirit’s operational model has always contributed to their dismal customer acceptance rates – it’s made it hard for Frontier or Spirit to fly even one flight reliably, and on top of that, they’ve always offered connections, which, given their inability to fly even one leg reliably, was insane. If this model helps Frontier operate reliably, that will help materially. If Frontier does this right, its passenger ratings should improve markedly.

    Second, a lot of airlines with ALPA contracts (and I assume Frontier is among them) are required to offer pilots a minimum proportion of multi-day trips. So Frontier may have to effectively offer pilots four day trips, presumably including hotel stays *in their own bases* to live up to the contract. So this might not have as much impact on pilot QoL as people believe.

    Lastly, not directly on topic, but related – people were wondering if the dire 3Q results of Frontier and Spirit (and even Allegiant, on a relatively basis) indicate the ULCC model is toast.

    Here’s an observation I have not seen before – when you have a destination like Las Vegas, which is so central to ULCC models, and it has capacity in 3Q that is up 24% on 2019, and when 2019 was itself the prior high-water mark for passengers into Vegas, it’s worth asking whether part of the issue is that Vegas simply does not have the rooms to accommodate the capacity currently being thrown at LAS.

    If you look at the Clark County visitation reports (available at the LVCVA website) you see that RevPAR (hotel equivalent to RASM) is at record rates but hotel visitation (equivalent of LF) is actually *down* since 2019 (but total LAS passengers are up), despite all that airline capacity that’s in there relative to 2019.

    And at that point you really do have to question whether the network planners at Spirit, Frontier, etc simply missed the fact that Vegas can’t effectively absorb any more passengers at this point. And that a lot of that extra capacity is simply being absorbed by locals or by people using LAS to access e.g. Southern Utah or the Grand Canyon or whatever. And that the hotels haven’t helped by keeping rates high enough that hotels are basically absorbing the savings that passengers have been given by the airlines (due to massive overcapacity).

    Something similar might be true for Orlando, where 3Q capacity was up 20% vs 2019. There’s this naive view among a lot of airline types that demand for Las Vegas and Florida is basically bottomless. That’s obviously wrong, there are obviously infrastructure constraints – 3Q results may have proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    1. Very insightful analysis. The notion of “bottomless demand” to FL and LAS might have been one of the stupidest ideas ever floated in this industry. (Insert forehead smacking emoji here)

        1. Well they have the least service to Florida to begin with. Mostly just increased service from hubs and Cleveland which is basically still a focus city.

  10. Will this operating model allow for some overnights? Will off base originators remain in the schedule – example early departures PDXDEN, SFODEN, LAXDEN, DTWDEN.

    1. PF – Sure, it’s certainly possible to do it that way, though they’d rather not if they can avoid it. Still, I’m sure it’ll happen.

  11. This is already the Avelo model. If they can do it (if, obviously – I haven’t seen their financials), the much-bigger Frontier should be able to. But Avelo is basing 1-2 planes at Wilmington, Raleigh, etc.

  12. If you have leisure flights only it can work, flying round trips from Spokane to Vegas or Harrisburg to Orlando.

    But when you want to fly DFW to Denver and Austin to Cleveland it doesn’t work as well. Your pilot test rules will break you.

  13. This would be hard to replicate here in the U.S. For example, many airlines have it in the CBAs that a portion of their trips have to be multi-day pairings. They also have strict language allowing them to commute, and you’re talking about a pay cut to the pilots and flight attendants because they wouldn’t be able to get TAFB(Time Away From Base) pay, aka Per Diem.

    The percentage of crew members who commute into the base in the U.S. is extremely high, and by eliminating overnights for them, Frontier would be passing on the cost and burden for them to pay more for accommodations the night before or the night after a trip. It would have an awful trickle-down effect that would destroy the quality of life of its pilots and flight attendants. Some of which might decide to leave. While, yes, it is understood that living in the base is desirable for the airline staff, here in the U.S., it is widely known and understood that most of these people commute.

    The unions would never go along with this, and Barry most likely knows this. Frontier could build multi-day trips with layovers in base, but the company would have to cover the hotel cost. Someone mentioned Avelo, and the difference is that they are new, and as of writing this, they currently do not have CBAs in place to prevent this from happening. Therefore, their company can establish this practice now since they are not violating a contract.

  14. I am concerned why I cannot find any flights originating anywhere on frontier that can be booked beyond April 9th of 2024. This is indicating frontier going out of operation or being bought out by someone else?

    1. Mark – that’s just how far out Frontier is booking. They extend their schedule season by season and they haven’t gone past that yet.

      1. So around December 21st they should update again?.  There itinerary has been stuck on April 9th for the last couple of months. I’ve flown frontier for years and it’s always seemed to me they’ve always booked at least 6 months out but appreciate your information.  Sent from AOL on Android

  15. F9 Pilots and Fight Attendants are totally against this network change. Over 50% of Frontiers FA’s commute to base. On average, most bases are already at 50% turns. This business change will create havoc with crew scheduling and will impact passengers. Barry is throwing darts at the board hoping something will stick. His two largest employee groups aren’t happy already. Contracts are up for both employee groups in 2024. Not a way to run an airline, not even a ULCC.

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