MIAMI — I generally feel that way any day I’m flying and getting to do four inaugural flights in one day is even more fun. Add in some weather en route and a bit of a roller coaster landing and that’s really the only thought in my mind.
Frontier Airlines is shifting its business model into a completely unbundled approach, with fees to be found for everything from a soda to a seat assignment to a carry-on bag. It’s also expanding its route map, picking up services where others have cut or simply hoping to create a market where one had not previously existed. Wilmington, Delaware fits squarely in the latter category. The airport has seen commercial service come and go over the years from a number of airlines. Few have taken the multi-destination approach that Frontier did. With a handful of destinations now served from New Castle County Airport Frontier is hoping to build a customer base mixing leisure and business travelers. This week saw two more destinations – Detroit and Atlanta – join the map, with both launching service the same day. Given an introductory fare of $36 round-trip on each route it was hard for me to say no when a friend suggested that I join him on board for the Atlanta turn. And since I was going to be in Delaware anyways adding on the Detroit trip seemed quite reasonable.
The folks in Wilmington brought the party with tourism information, balloons and free coffee on offer prior to the flight. And Frontier brought Andre the Antelope. Let’s go for a ride!
Unfortunately the weather was not so great in Delaware, but that didn’t stop the local authorities from offering up the traditional water-canon salute for the departures.
The grey sky and drizzle in Delaware had nothing on the rough skies over Detroit. We were not more than a couple minutes out from landing when the pilots gunned the throttle, initiating a go around due to warnings of wind shear on the field. It was well communicated and the second approach, while bumpy coming down through the clouds, put us on the ground perfectly.
One the flight over I spoke Greg Kouba, an engineer in the aviation market commuting to Detroit for a couple days’ work. Kouba raved about the ease of access at the airport as a great draw to him as a passenger.
I can park closer to the terminal than I typically can at my supermarket. I was standing at the check-in counter and could still see my car parked right across the driveway.
For a South Jersey traveler who was often flying out of Philadelphia or Atlantic City the new Frontier service at Trenton and Wilmington was most welcome to him. That said, he noted that the Classic fare bundle was a big part of what he enjoyed, with the STRETCH seating and checked bag fee included. He was a bit disappointed when I told him that Frontier killed that product the day prior, but suggested he’d still compare the total cost including those benefits as he checks fares going forward.
Less than 20 minutes after walking off the plane into the terminal I was one of the last passengers to make my way back on board for the Detroit-Wilmington half of the inaugural. Other than the airport authority not properly showing the flight on the monitors at the gate there wasn’t much special at the Detroit end, though the station staff were friendly for the few minutes we chatted. Another bumpy ride due to the weather and soon enough I was back in Delaware, getting ready to do it all over again.
I met Dawn on the return flight from Detroit; she was one of a dozen or so of us who made the round-trip turn. Much like me she was in it for the fun of being in the air for a few hours, taking to the sky as a great way to spend a morning. And the $36 round-trip fare didn’t hurt.
I was a bit disappointed that I had to leave the secure area at Wilmington; they don’t really plan for connecting passengers there. That disappointment was quickly muted by the snacks the local authorities had set out for the group. The security officer I spoke with saw me later with a handful of the pretzels and joked that he did me a favor. I suggested that next time he lead with the “free food” option and no one would ever argue again.
I wrapped up a conversation with Dawn and headed through security to meet David, the friend who invited me along in the first place and, once again, it was time to fly.
I had booked a window seat for the flight but upon boarding we learned that two young boys and their father were each assigned middle seats in separate rows. I swapped with one of them to sit next to my friend in the middle. That still left them needing an aisle-for-middle swap to get the family together. That didn’t happen. Oops. Another water-canon salute and we were off to Atlanta on a flight which was much smoother than the weather forecasts had predicted.
Our stay in Atlanta was a bit longer than Detroit but also much less friendly. I grabbed a quick snack in the terminal and then came back to the gate and asked about swapping seats (my friend got Op-Up’d to the STRETCH seating) at which point I was brusquely brushed off by the gate agent, “The entire plane is full.” I stepped into the jetway to the sight of bags being tagged to gate-check through to Wilmington. I was the final passenger to board and was greeted by a bunch of empty seats – including the one I specifically asked about – and tons of space in the overhead. From a customer service perspective it was most disappointing (and, yes, I know it is contract workers, but still not great).
On the plus side, however, the same crew was still on board and still just as cheery as they were at 8am when I met them for the initial flight of the day. And, unlike me, they were actually working the whole time.
There are some quirks about the Wilmington-based service, like the plane is not catered there. In our case that meant a six-segment run between Denver and Orlando, with the Detroit and Atlanta turns mixed in, between refills. With most items carrying a surcharge the take rate was relatively low (even for passengers who get freebies thanks to their ticket category) but there were still a few out of stock well before the day ended. Boarding from the ground is great, so long as it isn’t raining or snowing or too cold. It works great in Long Beach, California; less so in Wilmington, Delaware. And the terminal is pretty cramped for a plane as big as those Frontier flies. The flight to Atlanta was full and it was standing-room only in the gate area waiting for departure. Plus, this is baggage claim:
More quirks than outright bad. And the ease of access will likely keep many coming back. But it is most definitely a budget service and a budget airline.