MIAMI — Many fliers instantly notice Frontier Airlines’ planes, which sport a variety of wild animals on the tail. Recently, Frontier took another bold step also likely to attract the attention of some customers. The Denver Post reports that the airline eliminated its toll-free phone number. Fliers may now reach the airline by phone only through calling a Salt Lake City area number, meaning callers outside of that vicinity may face a long-distance charge just to verbally speak with a Frontier representative.

Frontier’s new scheme (Credits: Frontier)

Many instantly flagged this as an example of Frontier attempting to gouge its fliers, calling out the airline for passing along a fee for simply dialing its number. But Frontier’s latest cost-cutting move comes with a lot more bark than bite. The airline’s decision will impact relatively few customers, since most people subscribe to phone plans with unlimited minutes. Furthermore, axing its toll-free line will save the carrier almost $2 million dollars annually, savings which it can subsequently pass on to the consumer in terms of lower base fares.

The idea that a passenger could theoretically pay a fee to call the airline – one of the most complained about nationally, according to Department of Transportation data – to voice a complaint has gained some steam and public finger-wagging. But consumers actually paying to talk with the airline have turned out to be a fairly rare bird. Frontier finds that most of its calls originate from “cell phones with free (long-distance) calling plans,” according to airline spokesman Jim Faulkner.

This is even more true considering as an ultra low cost carrier (ULCC) the airline’s unique audience, which differs from the more traditional market that legacy carriers target. Those who step aboard one of Frontier’s wildly-themed aircraft are typically even more likely to have a non-restrictive long-distance cellular plan, or even just to take care of business by using its website. Frontier knows well that its decision, driven by trimming cost bulge, will practically affect very few of its customers. And the airline most likely sticks to the belief that even those who feel the pinch will continue to frequent the airline with the lure of low base fares and saving the most money overall.

Frontier defends its move by asserting that it made the jump way back in late June, with overall little fanfare since then. Additionally, other ULCC’s such as Spirit and Allegiant also lack toll-free numbers. Pulling the cord on its line seems only to fit the trend set by its rivals and represents a competitive response in the lunge for passenger traffic. Passengers’ real gripe rests with the ULCC template, not with Frontier.

Frontier wants to play in the arena with Spirit and Allegiant in terms of CASM. (Credits: Centre for Aviation (CAPA))
Frontier wants to play in the arena with Spirit and Allegiant in terms of CASM. (Credits: Centre for Aviation (CAPA))

Frontier identifies achieving cost parity with Spirit and Allegiant as a primary goal. It targets lowering its cost per available seat mile (an industry metric known as CASM) excluding fuel and special items to approximately six cents, putting it on par with its ULCC rivals. The extra $2 million will go a long way to making that a reality without pulling too many teeth.

Furthermore, the airline reports no direct negative feedback from its customers regarding the decision, again suggesting that much of the uproar traces to those either simply uncomfortable with an ULCC-oriented business model or those out to vilify the airline, potentially from due to a cloudy prior experience unrelated to actually calling the company. The airline industry in general represents an especially popular target for public discontent. It ranks among the least well-liked industries in the nation, dwelling in the approval sewers with the likes of the cable television and (surprise) cell-service providers.

Many opponents of the move also question whether the airline will actually further discount airfares with the extra money it will bank. But Frontier stands in a particularly likely position to follow through with its promise. Firstly, the ULCC business model relies on featuring the lowest possible base fares (completely unbundled and supplemented with add-on fees for extra services) to win the eye of customers. Simply hoarding the money it saves would hardly assist the airline in capturing fliers from the grips of its legacy competitors.

Secondly, while Frontier formally transitioned to an ULCC years back, it still has some room to develop in this regard. Its costs, while definitely lower than American’s, Delta’s, and United’s, as noted above still exceed that of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, considered prime examples of ULCC’s. Frontier risks losing the battle for the subset of those willing to consider this unique business model if it fails to slash airfares. It knows well that the airline competes not only with the Big Three, but also with Spirit and its other ULCC-rivals. Falling as the least competitive option among its ULCC-class would totally defeat the purpose.

(Credits: Frontier)
(Credits: Frontier)

Of course, removing a service complimentary at most other airlines will likely not win any support for Frontier either. The airline must continue to address flagrantly bad operational performance, as well as an overwhelmingly poor public perception. Even as an ULCC, the airline needs to appropriately balance its long-term reputation with tightly capping costs, and possibly alienating even a small number of its customers stands as the largest risk with this move.

But while many of the services for which it and its peers bill the customer do seem slightly excessive, this move in particular appears very sensibly-driven and rationally calculated. A vigilant search to slice away any excess costs it can find and maintain a financially-fit expense sheet is very emblematic of an ultra low cost carrier. Axing its toll free number certainly does highlight Frontier’s separation from the pack, but not necessarily in a negative light. Granted, it’s not a move that makes sense for every airline (or even most businesses, for that matter) – but it meshes very consistently for Frontier.

Odds are, Frontier’s latest step benefits you as a consumer by unbundling a service for which many have no need anyway. Call foul all you’d like, but Frontier Airlines really isn’t out to bite you here.