MIAMI — Earlier this week, ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Frontier Airlines announced plans to add 42 new non-stop routes in the United States this spring, centering the additions on its growing bases at Philadelphia, Chicago O’Hare, and Orlando.
Over a two-and-a-half-month period spanning from April 14 to June 30, Frontier will add 155 weekly roundtrip flights (~22 daily roundtrips) in those 42 markets with either three or four frequencies per week (Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday exclusively). The vast majority of these new routes (34 out of 42) will be launched over a two-day period between April 14 and 15.
We have prepared the following table to summarize the new routes with their start dates and frequency.
Frontier pivots back to sub-daily frequency
The new routes in and of themselves are not particularly interesting. Outside of St. Augustine, these are largely point-to-point (p2p) flights from established Frontier bases to large origin and destination (O&D) destinations. In that sense, it is the same old playbook for the Denver-based ULCC.
Frontier has been adding (and dropping ) routes at a breakneck pace for more than a year since it cut over to the ULCC business model, funding growth with a mix of newly delivered aircraft and planes freed up from the steady devolution of their once proud base at Denver.
What is new is that all of these new routes are planned with less than a daily frequency, a substantial departure from Frontier’s modus operandi for the last year and a half. Back when Frontier had substantial focus cities in Trenton, New Jersey and Wilmington Delaware, it did have a tangible portfolio of less than daily route offerings. But since those bases were de-emphasized, in the intervening year and a half Frontier stuck to mostly adding daily service in new markets, emulating the strategy of larger ULCC rival Spirit Airlines. Now the pendulum appears to have swung back the other way.
Sub-daily frequency is of course a viable business model for a ULCC in the US, as evidenced by the runaway success of Allegiant Air. But at the same time, for carriers of a similar archetype (i.e. two legacy carriers or two ULCCs) having daily flights is a competitive advantage over sub-daily frequency.
Frontier can afford to be less than daily against even multiple daily flights offered by legacy or network carriers because they are each targeting different types of customers. But it cannot afford to do the same against Spirit when both carriers offer essentially the same product.
The “Frontier Dartboard” limits staying power of the brand
Despite the influx of new routes, not all of Frontier’s new flying represents net growth on a year-over-year (YOY). In fact looking YOY at July 2015 versus July 2016, Frontier will have dropped service on 19 different nonstop routes, yielding net growth of 23 nonstop routes. Since many of the routes dropped had daily service, the net growth in terms of frequency is even smaller (perhaps as low as 40 net new weekly flights).
This sort of churn is endemic at Frontier. Do you Remember Frontier’s vaunted expansion at Washington Dulles? Most of those additions have gone away and Frontier is down to just eight destinations there (only five of which were served in the initial tranche of 14). The takeaway is that while some amount of turnover in an airline’s network is normal, Frontier has far exceeded those levels.
This has a very real cost. When Frontier operates in this blink and you’ll miss them manner, it is hamstrung in its ability to win over customers and build tangible brand loyalty. Spirit by contrast is very stable (mostly adding routes), and that delta contributes at least in part to Frontier’s inability to compete head to head with Spirit in joint markets. And that doesn’t even take into account the variety of legacy and network carriers that Frontier will be competing against on roughly 35 of the 42 markets.
Back in the early aughts, the so-called “Delta Dartboard” made the rounds in the aviation community, referring to the unusual proclivity of Delta Air Lines to add and drop seemingly incongruous routes across its network including oddball p2p ones that didn’t touch a Delta hub. With the latest glut of Frontier additions and drops, it might be time to pass ownership of that proverbial “dartboard” on to Frontier. And they’ll continue to own it until their route network stops turning over so much.