It has been a while since we here at AirlineReporter reviewed a mainline Frontier flight, four years to the month, in fact. Since then, Frontier has been freed from Indianapolis-based Republic and has made serious changes to its business model. Denver’s hometown airline and longtime low-cost carrier spent most of 2014 transforming itself into an ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC). This change was prescribed by the company’s new owners – Indigo Partners. Indigo co-founder William Franke has some experience with ULCCs; in fact he has successfully invested in a number of them, most notably Wall Street’s favorite: Spirit.
I have long wanted to experience Frontier, but the timing and opportunity never worked out. That is until they published a $76 round-trip from Kansas City to Denver. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a “fan” of the ULCC market, domestically they tend to be more interesting than say, the legacies. While I gravitate more to LCCs (like Southwest, Virgin, or JetBlue) it’s fun to check out their ULCC brethren. LCC and ULCC airlines like to suggest that their competitive prices create demand and with a crazy sub $100 fare, I suddenly found a two-day hole right in the middle of my work week.
Frontier’s story is one of real interest. The company, as we know it today, is the melding of two great, albeit small, airlines which had fiercely loyal fans. Denver’s hometown carrier: Frontier, the 1994 rebirth of the once-great airline of the same name, and Milwaukee’s hometown carrier: Midwest Airlines, home of “the best care in the air” and fresh baked-aboard chocolate chip cookies. Both airlines found themselves under the unfortunate ownership of regional airline Republic Airways. Republic’s CEO, Bryan Bedford promised to keep the entities separate, but in less than a year went back on that promise and merged the two, with the Frontier brand surviving.
Given the Frontier/Midwest lineage, I was anxious to see how ULCC Frontier would stack up to the others in an increasingly crowded market segment, as well as search for any inkling of “the best care in the air” legacy. In its own rite, Frontier seems to want to preserve some of the care and distance itself from others in the market. In an interview with the Denver Post, Frontier’s CEO distanced the company from Spirit: “We say Spirit is the dollar store and they aspire to be Walmart. We say we are Target.” The results, at least as per my experience, mixed.
Kansas City to Denver on Benny the Bear
My first Frontier plane was Benny the Bear, a leased Airbus A319 which formally flew for Mexicana. To my sincere delight upon entering the plane, there was a large custom poster which read “You’re flying with Benny the Bear” which sported a detailed graphic of Benny similar to those seen on the tail and the wingtip fence. This is something Frontier does really well to stand out from the pack: Fun and playful branding with the Frontier animals. Everyone I know loves the adorable animal marketing and I was delighted to see the airline has put a lot of work into emphasizing the specific animal personality of the plane in question. I have to wonder, however, if this customization will continue as the company seeks to trim costs.
While the seats were comfortable and the pitch manageable, the belt was far from fitting. Important to note, I’m a big guy, but this was terribly discouraging as over the past year I’d flown on a dozen or so aircraft variants across five other airlines with plenty of room, thus avoiding the embarrassing need to ask for an extender. In fact, just months earlier, I flew with Allegiant on an ex-easyJet Airbus which still had that British ULCC’s interior, and even then, the belt fit. A brief panic set in with flash backs to many years ago, when extenders were the norm for me. Thankfully, the friendly flight attendant noticed, and was discreet in helping to remedy the situation. Still, for a great portion of the flight I wondered if I could have managed to grow by inches in circumference between this and a whirlwind trip with Southwest completed a mere month and three days prior.
We departed on time and I chuckled as a child a few rows back exclaimed “doggy!” I had heard of the signature Airbus “barking” noises but never experienced them first-hand. It’s a phenomenon common to the type, as the power transfer unit works to balance hydraulic pressures during single-engine taxiing.
Frontier’s Airbus planes aren’t WiFi equipped, but they do offer live TV for $3.99 (on short routes), albeit via incredibly dated in-seat displays. My screen for some reason was dramatically yellower than others. The resolution was poor, similar to that of the original iPhone and in an old-fashioned 4×3 SD format. It was sufficient, but noticeably pixelated. The screen was as tall as the long side of a credit card, and slightly wider. I didn’t partake as this was only a 90-minute flight. Of all the other seats I could see, only one was offering a preview. The attractive and petite knee crusher seemed content watching the muted SpongeBob SquarePants episode with a nag watermark. As soon as she got up to visit the lavatory, I reclaimed my knee space and shot a photo of her display.
The beverage service was quick but the attendants were friendly. In line with ULCCs, nothing is free. A non-alcoholic beverage set me back $1.99 but I scored the whole can. For the same price “bottomless” coffee was also an option, but not decaf. The flight attendants seemed legitimately excited on behalf of the passengers and put a lot of emphasis on the “whole can” and “bottomless” coffee concepts.
As soon as beverages were sold we were on descent. One last sales opportunity: An attendant announced “On behalf of Benny the Bear and Frontier Airlines crew [we’d like to pitch our credit card…]” The pitch was compelling. Sign up today, and get one international round trip, or two domestic round trips. The crew came through with applications and there was a surprising number of takers.
Moments later, we landed in Denver and received one last animal-themed announcement: “On behalf of all of us at Frontier and Benny the North American Grizzly Bear we thank you for flying with us.” Aside from the seat belt issue the flight was pleasant, the service friendly, and I left satisfied.
Denver to Kansas City- A far cry from a similar experience
Having had my Patellas ground by the attractive, petite knee-crusher on my MCI-DEN flight, I gladly forked over the $25 for extra legroom. I was pleased that I received a credit for my prior paid seat selection fee. Frontier can manage this, but United can’t? I digress…
In Denver, all carry-ons had to be verified by the gate agent to determine if they would fit under the seat or if the passenger would need to purchase bin space. The process seemed haphazard and wasn’t something I had experienced in KC the day prior. It was hot in the terminal and my fellow passengers were not happy with the delays caused by the bag verification.
Soon enough, I boarded N204FR, an A320 named Freedom the Bald Eagle. While there was a custom poster upon entry to match the tail and wingtip fence, the flight attendants didn’t incorporate the theme into any of their announcements. I was let down, as this was one of my PaxEx bright spots from the prior flight.
Even with the extra attention given to bags at the gate, there were far too many carry-ons. By the time everyone was boarded, the flight attendant was trapped in the forward galley area behind what had to have been at least 15 bags, stacked waist-high, waiting to be tagged and gate checked. Passengers who had paid for carry-on bin space were not pleased, and this set the tone for what would be a stressful flight for passengers and employees alike.
The embarrassment of having to ask for a seat belt extender made me wince, and as one of the first to board I was quick to procure one without an audience. The flight attendant who wasn’t exactly svelt herself seemed inconvenienced by my ask and wasn’t particularly friendly. Cognizant of the belt size limitation I paid close attention to those around me. A total of 5 other passengers in my viewing area from seat A1 required extenders, a relief. At least I wasn’t an outlier. Or THE outlier.
I had avoided embarrassment, but at least one other passenger wasn’t spared. Seat 2A carefully and discreetly asked the mid-cabin FA for an extender as she was passing by. This attendant turned around and loudly asked the forward FA who was still buried alive in galley if she had an extender. She was fresh out, and would have to pass it along (literally) after the safety demonstration. Following the in-flight safety announcements, the forward FA handed the extender to 1C and asked him to pass it back a row. The passenger in 1C was confused so he handed it to 2B who passed it along. Too many folks involved in what should be a discreet transaction. I was mortified on behalf of 2A who had lost all the color in her face as everyone in the forward cabin stared her down.
It’s hard to size up an airline based on just two flights, particularly when those flights stand in such stark contrast to one another. If most Frontier flights are like my trip to Denver, I’m positive Frontier will be able to carve a place for itself in the ULCC market. After all, what other ULCC has Midwest Airlines charm running through its veins, and offers WiFi and/or IFE? If most Frontier flights are like my flight home…there’s already an airline that everyone loves to hate. No, not United, but Spirit.
I’m honestly torn. ULCC with personality is a lofty goal, but I have high hopes for Frontier. For the sake of airline diversity I wish them the best of luck. But first order of business: address the seat belt issue. I would gladly fly them again if it weren’t for that; it’s a sensitive subject, and a deal breaker.