Frontier, Spirit Airlines divided over how to expand in New York

Dec 18, 2019

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Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines are two of numerous smaller U.S. carriers that want to add flights to New York City, but they represent a divide on how to gain access the region’s tightly controlled airports.

Denver-based Frontier has taken a work-within-the-system approach to add 15 new routes from Newark Liberty (EWR). The carrier has scheduled all of its flights outside of peak hours – even when they are at less than ideal times – avoiding both congestion and placing pressure on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s hourly cap on aircraft movements. Each takeoff or landing counts as a movement.

South Florida-based Spirit has taken another route. The airline, while continuing to add flights, has asked a court to review an October 2019 decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation to sunset 16 peak-hour landing and takeoff rights at Newark that Southwest Airlines stopped using in November.

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“We believe those rights should still exist and [we should] be able to compete at Newark,” Spirit vice president of inflight experience at Lania Rittenhouse told reporters at an event in the airline’s Detroit (DTW) hangar Dec. 16.

Asked about Spirit’s suit on Dec. 17, Frontier senior manager of network planning Jonathon Nield declined to comment.

“What’s important here is that all airlines get a fair opportunity to serve the New York community,” Nield told TPG at an event unveiling 25 new routes for 2020.

The question over “fair” access to New York’s three main airports – John F. Kennedy (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark – is not new. Newer and smaller carriers have pushed for years for additional access, with what flights they hold today amassed slowly through various channels, many from some form of regulatory action.

For example, Southwest acquired its 16 peak-hour flights at Newark through the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines in 2010. The deal was part of a move by the merging carriers to assuage any concerns by federal antitrust authorities.

Related: Spirit Airlines sues DOT for Southwest’s flights at Newark

Spirit’s battle with the DOT at Newark is not the only fight for New York access. JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines have both asked the regulator to mandate Delta Air Lines and WestJet to give up eight slot pairs at LaGuardia as a condition to their proposed partnership. The Canadian carrier gained the slots from its partner as part of a 2011 deal between Delta and US Airways aimed at ensuring competition at LaGuardia.

One slot allows for either a takeoff or landing, with a pair required for a round-trip flight.

While the number of slots or flights in play are seemingly small, they are critical for smaller carriers, or ones with a minimal New York presence like Southwest, to expand their beachheads in New York. American Airlines, Delta and United all amassed their slot and flight portfolios over decades, with their long histories – and outliving many legacy competitors – a benefit to them when it comes to amassing slots.

Related: JetBlue joins Southwest pushing WestJet to give up New York slots under Delta pact

Delta highlighted this fact in a letter to the DOT in 2015. The airline noted that its slot portfolio at LaGuardia, which it considers a hub today, took years and considerable investment to amass. It started serving the airport with just six slots in 1969 and did not achieve 100 slots until its acquisition of the Pan Am Shuttle in 1991, some 22 years later.

JetBlue has only existed for 19 years, launching at JFK in 2000, and Southwest has only served New York since 2009.

The DOT declined comment on the Newark lawsuit, directing any questions to the Department of Justice.

Featured image courtesy of Denver International Airport.

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