Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, upending an industry that had been on the verge of another record-breaking year.
Since then, airlines have furloughed more than 33,000 workers, despite receiving more than $50 billion in government support. Thousands more workers have left the industry permanently. Analysts are predicting it could be three or four years before passenger traffic returns to 2019 levels.
Even so, Frontier chief executive Barry Biffle remains bullish on the airline’s prospects, arguing that at a time when fewer business travelers are flying, his airline’s dependence on leisure travelers means it is better positioned to weather the downturn.
At the same time, he acknowledges that talk of expansion has been tempered by a harsh new reality as the entire industry faces a future that could mean fewer travelers not just for months, but years.
The numbers are stark. Frontier expects to carry at least 20 million fewer passengers this year than it did in 2019, when it flew more than 31 million people.
“We had high margins, low costs and a good growth trajectory,” Biffle said. “And then we hit a huge, massive speed bump.”
'No bookings at all'
In January, the novel coronavirus still seemed far off. Biffle remembers being at his son’s racing competition at a Colorado ski resort. He found himself awake at 4 a.m. and, like so many of us, began scrolling through news stories detailing the exponential growth of coronavirus infections.
The next thing he knew, he was dashing off an email to Frontier’s head of customers, urging him to order masks. The airline put in an order for 40,000 masks for employees. By Wednesday of the following week, the masks still hadn’t arrived. Supply chain issues, his staff told him.
“That should have been our clue that something was going on,” he said.
In hindsight, there were clues everywhere — the nearly empty hotel Biffle and his team were at in Miami, the half-full flight back to Denver. By early April, sales were off 97 percent.
“It was crazy — I mean, there were no bookings at all,” Biffle said.
For Frontier, the worst of the pandemic arrived in May, when the airline was flying only 92 daily flights — a decrease of 76 percent from the previous year. More than 40 percent of the airline’s planes were idled.
Since then, operations have picked up some. In May and June, Frontier began adding service to select cities in Florida: Orlando, Miami and Tampa from Philadelphia, Albany, N.Y., and Los Angeles. It’s now operating an average of 258 daily flights to 93 cities.
The airline moved forward with its plan to open a Miami base, though a pause in hiring means it won’t grow as previously planned. The $10 million training center in Orlando opened. And the carrier is still taking delivery of new airplanes.
“We were the best positioned going in and we believe we’ll be the best positioned coming out, so there’s no reason not to continue to invest in these things,” Biffle said.
Analysts, including Daniel Friedenzohn, professor of aeronautical science and associate dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, say Frontier may indeed be well positioned to weather this historic downturn. The airline is owned by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm, so it may not face the same pressures from stockholders as other carriers, including American, United and Southwest. The firm’s co-founder is William Franke, former chief executive of America West Airlines. Indigo acquired Frontier from Republic Airways, which had bought Frontier in a bankruptcy sale in 2009.
And at a time when business travelers are largely staying home, Frontier’s focus on leisure travelers may serve it well too, said Henry Harteveldt, president of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research.
Frontier started out serving destinations around the country from its base in Denver and is known for its distinctive planes with photos of wildlife on their tails. It has recast itself several times over the years, with its latest iteration as an ultra-low-cost carrier. Its fares are cheap, but customers pay additional fees for carry-on bags or booking a ticket through a call center. Frontier’s planes are not equipped with WiFi. Like other low-cost carriers — think Spirit and Allegiant — it isn’t necessarily known for customer service, but during the pandemic the carrier has been out front on health initiatives.
It was among the first to require crew and passengers to wear masks and is the only U.S. carrier that does temperature checks of passengers before they board. Biffle acknowledges there are doubts about the efficacy of such screening but counters that it still offers nervous travelers some level of reassurance.
To some, the moves appear to contradict the carrier’s philosophy of keeping costs at a minimum, but Harteveldt said being a low-cost airline doesn’t mean a carrier has to skimp on customer safety.
“Credit Frontier for acting early,” Harteveldt said.
Being out front may have paid off. Biffle said he can’t prove a direct connection, but the day Frontier announced its mask requirement, ticket sales nearly doubled.
“My view was sales would not have doubled that day if these people didn’t value everyone wearing a mask,” he said.
That’s not to say that everyone agrees. About 200 people have ended up on Frontier’s no-fly list because they refused to wear a mask on board.
Frontier also has had missteps. According to data from the U.S. Transportation Department, thousands of complaints have been filed against the airline about ticket refunds during the pandemic. In June, the most recent month for which data is available, Frontier ranked second only to United in customer complaints. Angry customers have sued Frontier and several other carriers.
Biffle said the airline’s policy is to offer flight credits or miles, which never expire. However, if the airline canceled a flight, passengers were entitled to refunds.
“We were fully in compliance with [Transportation Department] rules through all of this,” he said.
The Transportation Department issued two enforcement notices reminding airlines of their obligation to provide refunds, but to date it has taken no enforcement actions against airlines.
The carrier also drew sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers for its “More Room” promotion, where travelers could guarantee a spot on a plane next to an open middle seat for a fee. The promotion rankled lawmakers in part because at the time, other airlines were offering the same option free. On this, Biffle is unapologetic, though he admits offering the option during a pandemic may not have been the best timing.
“They said we were profiteering and I’m like, ‘You’re not getting it,’ ” Biffle said. “We’re selling tickets for like ten bucks. You know, no one accuses the legacy airlines of profiteering from space.”
Focusing on growth strategy
Frontier received nearly $211 million from the Payroll Support Program created as part of the Cares Act, which was designed to keep front-line workers — including flight attendants, mechanics and pilots — on the job through the end of September. This summer, like many carriers, Frontier warned that just over 1,400 employees — nearly 30 percent of its workforce — could be at risk of furloughs without additional federal aid. In the end, enough employees agreed to leave the company or take voluntary leave so that no one had to be laid off — at least for now. At the end of September, Frontier received an additional $574 million in loans it eventually will have to pay back.
Biffle said he is focused on the strategy that has fueled Frontier’s growth over the last several years: flying people to places they want to go for cheap.
Harteveldt said that strategy might work, but the airline may face growing competition from the larger carriers that now offer similar no-frills-type airfares. During boom times, United, for example, might have been willing to cede some passengers seeking bargains to carriers like Frontier because it had a lock on business travelers, he said. But with business travel down, competition will only increase for the limited number of Americans who are flying — leisure travelers.
In Denver, for example, Frontier could find itself competing for customers with United and Southwest, which offer service to some of the same destinations. But it may find more success in other hubs it has built in Orlando, Philadelphia and Cleveland because there is less competition from other airlines.
Biffle dismisses such talk.
“Look, they can compete for leisure travel, but with their cost structures, they can’t afford to sell tickets at the levels that we sell at,” he said. “It’s like the Capital Grille saying we’re going to compete with McDonald’s. They’re just not in that business. Sure, they may chase it when they have no business travel, but it’s not a long-term strategy.”
Even so, Harteveldt said Frontier could run into trouble with its own customer base — a highly price-sensitive group that might be more adversely affected by downturns in the economy because they have less disposable income.
People who fly Frontier aren’t necessarily frequent fliers or business travelers who can stroll into the airport the day of and plunk down $700 for a ticket, Harteveldt said. And with its rock-bottom fares, Frontier needs people to fly — the more the better, he said.
During the pandemic, Biffle also has won fans among the airline’s rank-and-file workers, who have appreciated his efforts to make them feel connected during the pandemic. Shortly after the outbreak, Biffle began doing short videos shot using his iPhone. He used the videos to update Frontier employees on what was happening with the pandemic. Before masks became widely available online and in stores, for example, he did a tutorial on how to make one at home. In the most recent, he reminded employees about the importance of continuing to wear masks and practice social distancing.
As a union leader who has tangled with Biffle in the past, Brian Ketchum, chairman of the Frontier Airlines Master Executive Council of the Air Line Pilots Association, said that while he’s reluctant to sound too boosterish, he has been impressed by how the chief executive has handled the crisis. The weekly videos have been a hit with workers who have told him they are seeing “a whole new Barry.”
“Frontier is like a cat,” said Ketchum, who has been a Frontier pilot for 15 years, through bankruptcy, its acquisition by Republic Airways and ultimate sale to Indigo Partners. “We’re probably going on our seventh life right now. But everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
Biffle insists the fundamentals are there.
“We continue to have a lot more wiggle room in terms of differentials and cost structures, which will enable us to continue to be probably the best value in the sky because we’ll be able to make money at low leisure fares, which is what people need.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the Orlando training center has opened. The article initially said it was being built. Also, it said that Frontier’s customers pay an additional fee for WiFi. Frontier’s planes do not offer WiFi.