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Here’s Which US Airline Cuts More Routes Than Any Other

Aug. 21, 2019
7 min read
Here’s Which US Airline Cuts More Routes Than Any Other
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Frontier likes to loudly announce new routes, often rolling out splashy announcements heralding "major" expansions.

This summer has been no exception. In June alone, Frontier unveiled nine at once, seven of them involving Las Vegas. That would be a big day for most airlines, but it’s a modest expansion for an airline that once announced 85 new routes (not a typo) in one day.

It's probably no surprise then that among the 10 largest US airlines, Frontier adds new routes at a faster clip than any other. That's backed up by data that shows the percentage of all-new routes added across major airlines in July 2019 compared to their route networks from July a year earlier:

Airline% growth in routes, July 2019 vs. July 2018
Source: Diio by Cirium

More quietly, Frontier also ranks No. 1 on another list: the airline that cuts the most routes among those 10, based on the same analysis. Unlike the first list, this race is not even close; Frontier is the only airline in double digits, with nearly twice as many routes completely axed as No. 2 Alaska.

Airline% of routes cut, July 2019 vs. July 2018Most important route or routes cut*
Frontier13.2%Tie: Miami MIA-San Juan SJU; Long Island ISP-San Juan SJU; Chicago ORD-Long Island ISP; Chicago ORD-Colorado Springs COS
Alaska6.9%Los Angeles LAX-Mexico City MEX
Allegiant5.7%Punta Gorda PGF-Springfield SGF
Southwest5.7%Houston HOU-Mexico City MEX
American4.6%Tie: New York JFK-Seattle SEA; New York JFK-San Diego SAN
JetBlue4.5%Boston BOS-Washington IAD
United4.4%Philadelphia PHL-Washington IAD
Spirit3.8%Tie: Minneapolis MSP-Seattle SEA; Fort Lauderdale FLL-Seattle SEA; Baltimore BWI-San Diego SAN; Chicago ORD-Portland PDX; Baltimore BWI-Oakland OAK
Delta3.8%Los Angeles LAX-Oakland OAK
Hawaiian2.1%Honolulu HNL-Beijing PEK
*based on total July 2018 seats for a route completely cut for July 2019; cuts could be seasonal, based on the methodology, although most are not
Source: Diio by Cirium

This might come as a surprise, even to industry insiders, considering that Frontier’s ultra-low-cost rival, Allegiant, unapologetically brags to investors about its willingness to cut underperforming routes. But schedule data suggests Frontier is even less reticent about quickly walking away from routes that don't meet its expectations.

Among Frontier routes that were "new" in July 2018 (i.e., routes that didn’t exist on the airline's schedule a year earlier), fully 30 percent are gone this year. Frontier’s overall rate of route cuts is perhaps mitigated by the fact that new routes for all airlines are, by definition, marginal and experimental. And Frontier has been adding new routes more prolifically than any other US carrier.

To be clear, the airline is still adding more than it’s subtracting. That's enabled 23-percent growth in total weekly seats this summer compared to last.

And to be equally clear, Frontier’s cuts are not occurring evenly throughout its network. A look at where it’s growing and where it’s shrinking tells a lot about what works, not only for Frontier but for ultra-low-cost airlines in general.

Here are the 10 airports where Frontier is shrinking most, ranked by total decline in number of weekly departing seats in the schedules for last month. Also included is what that equates to in percentage terms, compared to a year earlier. Note that Frontier is still rather large in Austin, for example, despite all the seats cut, because it was bigger there to begin with than in the other cities:

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AirportWeekly seats cut% weekly seats cut
Austin AUS(3,164)(18.1%)
Providence PVD(3,034)(52.6%)
San Jose SJC(2,626)(61.2%)
Omaha OMA(1,716)(51.1%)
Colorado Springs COS(1,536)(19.5%)
Cincinnati CVG(1,530)(10.0%)
Albuquerque ABQ(1,416)(65.6%)
Tulsa TUL(1,326)(59.7%)
San Juan SJU(1,304)(19.2%)
Des Moines DSM(1,200)(66.7%)
Source: Diio by Cirium

And here are Frontier’s top 10 growth markets by the same measure:

AirportWeekly seats added% weekly seats added
Denver DEN25,26429.1%
Orlando MCO18,43851.9%
Las Vegas LAS10,56843.9%
Cleveland CLE4,51236.2%
Tampa TPA4,40856.8%
Raleigh-Durham RDU4,09233.7%
Philadelphia PHL3,97816.8%
San Francisco SFO3,724122.1%
Boston BOS3,348(new market)
Dallas-Fort Worth DFW3,130127.8%
Source: Diio by Cirium

The lesson? Despite all the creative new routes connecting city pairs that had no nonstop service, Frontier likely succeeds most when it does two things:

  • Carry planeloads of passengers to giant leisure destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando. Those are the kinds of routes that have seemed to work best for Spirit and Allegiant over the years, and it’s probably not too much of an oversimplification to say the superior profitability of those carriers has been related largely to their historically bigger presence in those markets. Ultra-low-cost carriers like markets in which they can “stimulate” demand simply by offering low fares.
  • Provide competitive service from Denver. Frontier has ramped up and down in its hometown city over the years. At one point, routes touching Denver accounted for nearly its entire network, so its whole network there was vulnerable to attacks by United and Southwest. But it also has never liked the idea of being a one-trick pony, so the carrier has repeatedly tried to diversify away from Denver. But for Frontier, perhaps it’s better to be a pony that does one thing well than many things poorly? Frontier’s three daily flights between Denver and Washington’s perimeter-restricted, slot-constrained Reagan National Airport (compared to only one daily for United, much to United’s chagrin) are said to be among the most profitable flights in the airline’s system.

Overall, more of Frontier’s routes — even new ones — succeed than fail. But don't buy a house in Buffalo just because Frontier offers cheap, nonstop flights to visit your family in Austin. Those flights might seem great now. But if business isn't good for Frontier, there's no guarantee the route will exist a year from now.

Featured image by A Frontier Airlines Airbus A320neo aircraft. (Image courtesy of Airbus)