Frontier Airlines added St. Maarten to its route network over the weekend, the latest play in the carrier’s efforts to grow its Caribbean presence. Service is limited to start, with Saturday-only service from Miami and Orlando. But it also represents the company’s shifting focus towards higher-yielding, international markets and a willingness to challenge competitors head-on.
We view our competition as the couch, as trips not taken.– Frontier’s VP Network & Operational Design Josh Flyr
Moving the Frontier focus
Despite its Denver roots, Frontier is shifting its focus to the Southeastern United States, with Florida playing an outsized role in the network moving forward. Speaking at the Caribavia conference in St Maarten last month, Frontier‘s VP Network & Operational Design Josh Flyr noted that Orlando will overtake Denver as the company’s largest station by the end of the year.
The carrier also expects to add four more Caribbean destinations in the coming Winter, bringing the total to 13. That’s a massive boost from 2016 when the company had only two markets and they operated as charter flights for Apple Leisure Group.
In 2019, before the pandemic disrupted the company’s growth plans, Frontier operated roughly 11% of its capacity into the Caribbean. This winter that will reach 15%, and not because other markets are shrinking. By 2024 the company hopes to have 20% of its ASMs flying into the region, mostly from Florida but also from Philadelphia and Newark where the VFR (visiting friends & relatives) markets are particularly strong.
Choosing competition, not unique markets
Perhaps most surprising in Flyr’s comments is that the company does not go out of its way to fund markets where it will be the sole operator. Rather, it prefers to operate in existing markets where the demand is established but an incumbent carrier dominates. Flyr explicitly suggested that airports or tourism boards “should be pitching markets where there is demand & fares are too high. Your hotels don’t care where the passenger came from; they pay the same rate.”
Frontier chooses to “compete” based on its exceptionally low cost base per passenger. Flyr cited a cost basis of roughly $94/passenger at the end of 2019. The company also realized just over $57/passenger in ancillary revenue in 2019. Taxes are still a large part of the costs to a passenger, so don’t expect tickets to be that cheap. But Frontier believes it can significantly underprice competition and still deliver profits to shareholders.
Not only does Frontier believe it is running a more efficient operation today, but it plans to further improve its efficiency in the coming years with updates to its fleet.
Driving operational efficiency
When Frontier started building its fleet these longer over-water flights were not part of the plan. For trips from Newark or Philadelphia, the flight path currently hugs the coast, adding 30-45 minutes per trip compared to a direct routing. This can be solved, but it takes a bit of time and money to get there.
With capacity shifting into the Caribbean the company will now add the necessary additional radio systems to enable more direct routings for the aircraft. When flying from Florida the routes are generally short enough to allow a crew to make the return trip on the same day.
With the upgraded comms systems the same will become true for more flights from the Northeast. A subfleet is expected to be fitted with the necessary hardware by the end of 2022.
Pilots might lose some fun overnight trips, but the company costs will drop even further, both on staffing and fuel expense. That, in turn, is expected to lead to some combination of lower fares, higher profits, and increased services in the region.
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