Benny the Bear an Airbus A-319 on approach for Denver International. Photo: JL Johnson

Benny the Bear, an Airbus A319 on approach for Denver International – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Mini-Benny on the wingtip fence. Photo: JL Johnson

Mini-Benny on the inside of the wingtip fence. An AvGeek delight! Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Benny the Bear wingtip fence with Freedom the Bald Eagle in the background, a nod to my next flight. Photo: JL Johnson

Benny the Bear wingtip fence with Freedom the Bald Eagle in the background, a nod to my next flight – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Free SpongeBob if you can tolerate the watermark and don't need sound. Photo: JL Johnson

Free SpongeBob if you can tolerate the watermark and don’t need sound – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Freedom the Bald Eagle seen at Denver International. Photo: JL Johnson

Freedom the Bald Eagle seen at Denver International – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Freedom the Bald Eagle seen at Kansas City International during an AOA tour unrelated to this trip. Photo: JL Johnson

Freedom the Bald Eagle seen at Kansas City International during an AOA tour unrelated to this trip – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

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.

Conclusion:

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.

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: [email protected]

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14 Comments

My only experience with F9 was a year ago flying SAN-DEN-MSP to position myself for Delta’s DC-9 retirement flight, and both flights were like your first flight, generally positive inflight experiences from the crew, though the tiny IFE screens and lack of legroom were definitely noticeable. And the DEN gate area was a mess with quite a few delayed flights.

I’ve also flown Allegiant (on the MD-80) but not Spirit. In principle, having done it a couple of times and generally knowing what to expect, I’d be ok with flying an ULCC for shorter flights, but I’m not sure I’d want to do one transcon.

nottoosvelte

Flight attendants cannot leave their boarding positions, so unfortunately if extenders run out it can be a big deal trying to finagle a extra. Our airline requires 6 extenders onboard. That is a lot of extenders to pass out on 1 flight, but it does happen. While the crew should show some decorum, it is sometimes difficult to manage juggling extensions/demo/secure cabin in the time the front door closes to push, as an aircraft cannot push without that pax requiring a extension to be buckled in. Now, had it even been more than that one extra person needing it it would have been an even bigger production as maintenance would need to be called and a delay likely. I know as my airline it is advised that 2 seats be purchased with the 2nd seat refunded weather the flight is sold out or not. You get to preboard and you are much more comfortable.

JL Johnson

Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

The real issue here is that the belts on the F9 planes, at least the Airbus variety, are particularly short. As mentioned in the piece, I fly and have flown comfortably with a hand full of airlines on many variants in recent history with no issue. Most airlines suggest you enter “passenger of size” territory if/when the arm rest won’t go (and stay) down. That hasn’t ever been an issue for me so it’s not really something I worry about.

I think too often we fixate on subjects like this in a black or white, on or off, sort of context. A passenger who requires an extender does not necessarily require -or want- a second seat.

JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

I am sorry you feel embarrassed to ask for a seat extender. I need them every time I fly in the Philippines as their airlines are set up for smaller people. The experience between the flights shows the need for consistency training for the flight crews. I would send an e-mail to the airline explaining what you see unless you feel they will read this post.

JL,

How did you miss the recent story, on Jan. 16, 2015, that Frontier Airlines
was laying off 1,160 employees here in Denver, and outsourcing all those jobs,
ramp, reservations, ticket counter, etc.

Link to the Denver Post story…

http://www.denverpost.com/News/ci_27334589/Frontier-outsources-work-gives-1160-Denver-airport-workers-notice

The editor of the Denver Business Journal, Neil Westergard, had a column since the layoffs, implying that Frontier is not long for this world… with this latest move.

This piece is for ‘subscribers only’…

http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/print-edition/2015/01/23/editors-notebooksears-fading-away-is-frontier-next.html

Here is a third piece from the Denver Business Journal, a much better ‘source’ than the Denver Post.

http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/news/2015/01/19/frontier-airlines-owner-hints-at-mergers-ahead.html

Frontier is getting a lot of bad press here in Denver, they are also fighting with
the City of Denver, for reduced fees at Denver Airport…

Denver area resident for over 40 years…

jl johnson

Peter, thanks for reading, and for the comment. I’ve been following the F9 changes very closely and am well aware of the decision to outsource. They made their announcement just days after I praised them for keeping their employees in house while another carrier, a legacy, had announced they were outsourcing jobs across many markets, DEN included. I think some of this is a necessity as they try to compete for the lower end market. It does pain me though, because part of F9 is my first love, Midwest. Although I suspect most legacy Midwest folks have long since departed.

JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

there is no shame on asking for a seat belt extender, i ask for it all the time, loudly, it’s not our fault that airline seat belts getting shorter every time ..lol

While I have experienced being the middle seat occupant in a situation where the isle seat person required 2 seats, I completely understand the embarrasement it can cause. It is amazing that the industry has not come up with a “purchase your own extender”, thus eliminating that situation.

Very nice write up. I am in the process of relocating from the south Jersey/Phila. area to the Charlotte area. I am a huge fan of Southwest, but they don’t have any direct flights to either Charlotte or Raleigh from PHL. So I found Frontier for under $100 round trip which is really unheard of. I flew with them from Charlotte to Trenton (since they didn’t have service into PHL at the time) about 15x’s, and also have mixed reviews. I like to consider them a hit or miss airline. Out of all the flights I took with them, they were all late arrivals AND departures except for 2 of them. And I am not talking about 15-30 minutes, more like 1+ hours, with 2 times it being 5-6 hours. Their customer service is horrible, if you call you will be on hold for at least 30 minutes. The gate personnel were always nice, as were the flight crews. The flight attendants were also hit or miss. Some flights it felt like you were on Southwest (fun crew, joking around, would do anything for anyone) and other times felt like you were on USAir (very bland and bothered at helping you). Although, if it was the latter, there would still be one “fun” one stuck with the boring bunch. So overall, if you don’t need to check bags and don’t mind being a little tardy, Frontier is the way to go. This is only my opinion and what I have experienced flying with them. I do plan on continuing to fly with them as long as their prices don’t get out of hand and saying Southwest starts flying more direct and doesn’t fly me to Chicago to get to Charlotte 😉

I GREW UP IN DENVER WITH FRONTIER — FROM THE DC-3 TO THE CONVAIR 580 TO THE 727 TO THE 737. I NO LONGER LIVE IN DENVER AND THEREFORE HAVE KIND OF LOST CONTACT WITH FN. THUS, I AM DISAPPOINTED TO LEARN THAT THE BEAR HAS CHANGED HIS NAME! IN FACT, BENNIE-THE-BEAR’S ORIGINAL (AND THUS REAL!) NAME WAS, AND STILL SHOULD BE, GRISWOLD, AT LEAST FOR OLD-TIMES SAKE!

Pat Myers

WHAT A TERRIBLE COMPANY THEY ARE! WHEN CHECKING COSTS OF TICKETS COMPARED TO THEIR COMPETITOR’S PRICE MAKE SURE YOU ADD IN THE TRUE COSTS OF FLYING WITH THEM! CHECK THEIR ALA’CARTE PRICES!!!!!
My husband and I just had the unpleasant experience of flying Frontier ala’carte from Atlanta to Denver. After purchasing tickets to fly round trip, we had to purchase a”seat” to sit in the same row, pay to have our luggage shipped. The airlines charged for soft drinks, coffee, sample sized snacks as well. They even charged to watch the flight path across the states.
I am 5’2″ I barely had leg room. My husband is 6’2″ he had no leg room, then is smashed into the seat ahead of him and when that person leaned their seat back.
On Frontier’s first morning flight to Denver, we were delayed taking off as they had to replace the fan in a motor since the one on it had been damaged. On our return flight we were delayed as their ground crew took over five attempts to connect the gangway to the plane in Atlanta leaving us to wait on the plane for over 20 minutes. Waiting on our luggage for another twenty minutes, only to find that they had damaged my suitcase so bad that they busted the zipper on my hardcase/roll any direction suitcase. So my belongings were spilled out on the baggage carousel when my husband picked it up. When we went to the Frontier office in Atlanta, we were told that turning in a claim would not matter, as Frontier does not care if they destroy your bag or not. They might cover damage caused to contents on the inside, but would not cover the buseted zipper. They were more worried about our interuping their “gab fest”; then to be concerned with the fact that we had just paid for the privilege of having our expensive nearly brand new suitcase ruined, my personal belongings spilled all over the carousel and floor!

Our flight got cancelled 18 hours before we were suppose to fly out and the only thing customer service would help with was a refund or get us a flight two days later. I told them we had a cruise to be at by Saturday and I begged for help to get us on any flight, even a flight close to our destination. We were told there is nothing they can do and the rep told me she can’t make “magic ” happen and just argued with me. Rachel was suppose to be the supervisor and she was rude, inconsistent and could really could care less about our concerns. We were offered no help and by the end of and hour and half call she refunded our money but only to be a different amount than what was originally told. We had to book a flight with another airline for Friday and pay $1000.

Sarah Sander

Terrible customer service and dirty planes. Clicked the wrong box while booking a flight and hit checked bag instead of carry on. When I noticed this upon check in, I did not have time to rectify the situation over the phone and in order to avoid a problem at the gate I paid again for a carry-on bag. Upon calling customer service a couple of days after my flight to get refunded for the checked bag that I accidentally hit, I was told there was never a time I could be refunded unless the flight was canceled. Spoke with a supervisor and was told that if they made an exception for me they would have to do it for everyone and change the policy. I don’t think anyone has said that to me since my 1st grade teacher. I indicated I was a frequent flyer with them and would not continue to fly if they were not able to accommodate a simple mistake and asked point blank if they were willing to lose a customer over $80 and they still said there wasn’t anything they could do. I will never fly with them again. This was icing on the cake to all of their hidden fees and dirty airplanes with “pre-reclined” seats. The woman next to me had to get someone to wipe her seat before she sat down as there was a brown stain that we couldn’t decide if it was blood or feces…

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