Frontier Airlines Goes All-In As an Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier

Over the last 10 years or so, Allegiant Travel (NASDAQ: ALGT  ) and Spirit Airlines (NASDAQ: SAVE  ) have pioneered a new "ultra-low-cost carrier", or ULCC, business model in the airline industry.

The two companies have very different strategies. Allegiant primarily serves small communities with secondhand jets, while Spirit serves heavily trafficked routes with state of the art planes. However, they share a commitment to keeping base fares and costs low by charging for various "optional services" and thereby encouraging cost-saving behavior in customers.

Spirit Airlines has been one of the pioneers of the ULCC model in the U.S. Source: Spirit Airlines.

In recent years, privately held Frontier Airlines has taken tentative steps toward adopting a ULCC business model. Last week, Frontier finally went all in by adopting one of the hallmarks of the ULCC world -- a carry-on baggage fee -- while reducing fares by an average of 12%.

Frontier's transformation
Historically, Frontier Airlines was a traditional low-cost carrier operating a hub-and-spoke route network based in Denver. However, the company ran into trouble as fuel prices spiked and the economy tumbled toward recession in early 2008, forcing it to file for bankruptcy.

Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV  ) , which had just begun flying to Denver in 2006, hoped to buy Frontier out of bankruptcy court in order to gain a bigger presence in that key market. However, Frontier and Southwest pilots could not agree on a path to merging their seniority lists, causing the bid to fall apart. Since then, Southwest has grown organically in Denver, where it now offers 167 daily departures to 56 cities.

Southwest has grew rapidly in Denver following the Great Recession. Photo: The Motley Fool

This created a bit of an identity crisis for Frontier. Following Southwest Airlines' expansion in Denver, Frontier was a struggling low-cost carrier competing directly on most routes with the low-cost carrier par excellence. The company needed a way to differentiate itself.

This ultimately led Frontier to turn toward an ultra-low-cost carrier business model in 2012. The company added a row to all of its A320 aircraft to reduce unit costs, and it announced plans to add an additional row to each of its planes through the use of slimline seats.

A year ago, Frontier took another step toward the ULCC model by introducing a fee for carry-on bags that applied only to customers booking through third-party channels like online travel agencies.

This policy had two aims. First, it rewarded customers who booked tickets directly with Frontier -- something that saves the airline money on commissions. Second, it encouraged customers who did not book directly with Frontier to check their bags, freeing up bin space for other fliers and thereby reducing boarding times.

A new type of ultra-low-cost carrier
Last week, Frontier extended the carry-on baggage fee to all economy tickets. (It still offers a second fare class called "Classic Plus" that includes free carry-on and checked bags, seats with extra legroom, and other extra features.) This moves it more squarely into the ULCC world, as Allegiant and Spirit are the only other carriers charging for all full-size carry-on bags.

Frontier is becoming more like Allegiant and Spirit by lowering fares and adding fees. Photo: The Motley Fool

In many ways, Frontier Airlines is trying to pull the best from the Allegiant and Spirit business models and roll them into one. Like Spirit Airlines, Frontier uses relatively new A320 family aircraft, and it has a large order for next-generation A320neo planes. However, like Allegiant, Frontier is starting to focus on smaller cities like Trenton, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., where it flies most routes just two to five times per week.

Frontier's recent management changes clearly show that the company intends to move further toward a pure ULCC business model over time. First, Frontier Airlines was purchased late last year by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm that primarily invests in ULCCs and masterminded Spirit's transformation to that business model.

Second, last month Frontier Airlines that it had appointed Barry Biffle as company president. Biffle previously worked for nearly a decade as the chief marketing officer at Spirit Airlines before heading up a new ultra-low-cost carrier in Colombia for the past year.

With a management team that understands the ULCC business model and has successfully implemented it in the past, Frontier Airlines' transformation is likely to gain steam this year. As an ultra-low-cost carrier, Frontier will be able to differentiate itself from Southwest in Denver by consistently offering the best prices.

Foolish conclusion
Frontier has been moving toward an ultra-low-cost carrier model for more than two years, but it has finally arrived. The ULCC model will give Frontier a good chance to carve out a profitable niche for itself due to the relatively small size of Allegiant and Spirit. Most importantly, it will enable Frontier to compete more effectively against Southwest Airlines in Denver.

Longtime Frontier Airlines customers should read up on the changes in Frontier's fee structure. For savvy fliers, Frontier will be offering even better deals on flights than before. However, if you're not careful, you could be on the hook for massive fees on top of your base fare.

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Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 07, 2014, at 11:42 AM, Pancakes22 wrote:

    Its a big Mirage, the company is rewarding anyone but themselves. They wouldn't implement a new policy because it was going to make them less money.

    New policy to make more money.

    They're not saving the consumer anything, total joke.

    Then these airlines can't seem to figure out why consumers hate them so much.

    Give a flat fare with no fees, especially hidden fees.

    Customer service used to be about making sure the customer was taken care of, now its all about taking every last penny when they're not looking.

  • Report this Comment On May 08, 2014, at 9:44 AM, TMFGemHunter wrote:

    @Risky88: Of course Frontier is doing this to make money. But if customers really cared that much about being nickel-and-dimed, then they would just fly a different airline. Southwest competes with Frontier on a lot of routes, and it gives customers two free checked bags as well as a carry-on.

    Customers are voting with their wallets. The vast majority of people would rather save $50 up front and then get nickel-and-dimed than get the "flat are with no fees" that you mentioned.


  • Report this Comment On May 08, 2014, at 3:16 PM, DukeTG wrote:

    Planet Money recently did a podcast on Spirit. If I recall correctly, they concluded that a fair number of Spirit flyers are "hate flyers": People who hate the ULCC model and complain about it but who still fly with the airline because its so cheap.

  • Report this Comment On May 09, 2014, at 10:19 AM, TMFGemHunter wrote:

    @DukeTG: Exactly. I think actions speak louder than words. The fact that these people keep coming back for the low price shows that they actually love the ULCC model. Without the fees, you don't get the rock-bottom base fare.


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Adam Levine-Weinberg

Adam Levine-Weinberg is a senior Industrials/Consumer Goods specialist with The Motley Fool. He is an avid stock-market watcher and a value investor at heart. He primarily covers airline, auto, retail, and tech stocks. Follow him on Twitter for the latest news and commentary on the airline industry!

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