‘This is home’: Spirit’s network chief explains the major Miami expansion

Oct 7, 2021

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Watch out, American Airlines. There’s a new airline in town.

In case you missed it, Spirit Airlines inaugurated service to Miami — one of American’s largest fortress hubs — on Wednesday. Nine routes launched this week, with 22 more being added in two additional tranches, a major one in November and a three-route expansion in January 2022.

In what’s possibly the single-largest pandemic-era network expansion nationwide, Spirit Airlines is betting big on Miami, especially considering that its Fort Lauderdale operating base is located under 30 miles away.

It all has John Kirby, Spirit’s vice president of network planning, excited. Kirby sat down (virtually) with TPG on the eve of Spirit’s Miami launch, and what follows is his take on the expansion.

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Loads are looking good

Spirit Airlines unveiled its Miami expansion plans back in June, giving the carrier a four-month lead time before launching its first flight.

Despite commencing operations in the shoulder season for South Florida, Spirit’s $22 fares sure seem to have been appealing to travelers. “Bookings are in line with Fort Lauderdale on an O-and-D [origin and destination] basis. Fort Lauderdale obviously has more connectivity, and Miami won’t initially, but overall it’s right in line,” said Kirby when asked about Miami’s performance so far.

Of course, the airline couldn’t have predicted the surge in the delta variant that has led to a softness in bookings, especially in October and early November, but the data shows that loads will improve around the winter holidays.

“October loads are not as strong as we expect to be around the holidays, but bookings are very strong around the holidays,” Kirby said.

Spirit’s new cabin interior (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Spirit Airlines is based in Miramar, Florida, just a stone’s throw away from the airline’s major hub in Fort Lauderdale. Both cities are within 30 miles of Spirit’s new frontier in Miami.

Though it might appear that adding 30 routes from Miami would cannibalize Fort Lauderdale traffic, Kirby believes it’s the exact opposite. “It’s really complementary,” he said, when asked about how the Miami routes will fare relative to Fort Lauderdale.

Furthermore, an airline spokesperson told TPG that the airline ran surveys around whether travelers would prefer flying into Miami versus Fort Lauderdale.

The results showed demand for both. “We were pretty bowled over by the traffic that we saw both outside the local market and within the South Florida market,” the spokesperson said.

Kirby knows that despite the proximity, Fort Lauderdale and Miami really are distinct markets. “A lot of people want to go to Miami for whatever reason. And so I think being able to offer both is really powerful,” he said.

From no flights to second-largest in MIA

When all is said and done, Spirit Airlines will become the second-largest carrier in Miami as measured by the number of flights. With 31 routes, most of which overlap with American’s existing network, look for Spirit to give the Fort Worth-based carrier a run for its money.

The airline will fly to 13 of the 20 biggest markets from Miami, according to Kirby.

This massive competitive shake-up has piqued the interest of many aviation enthusiasts and industry observers. But for Kirby, and the entire Spirit team, “we really view it as a natural progression of our growth.”

“As Florida’s hometown airline, we are the only major airline headquartered here, and we’re headquartered in South Florida. So, for us and our teammates, this is home,” Kirby said.

In addition to going head-to-head with American on many of its bread-and-butter routes, Spirit will also leapfrog the other domestic airlines that have recently started service there.

American Airlines Boeing 777 in Miami (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

During the pandemic, both Southwest and JetBlue made headlines for starting service to Miami, a city they’ve long avoided in favor of nearby Fort Lauderdale due to its lower operating costs.

One of Spirit’s biggest ultra-low-cost competitors, Frontier Airlines, already has a sizeable presence in Miami. The Denver-based carrier added Miami to its route map in 2014 and has since classified the city as one of its hubs.

Atlantic City and Myrtle Beach are the odds ones out

Of the 31 new Spirit routes, 28 are already served at least once daily by American Airlines, according to Cirium schedule data. Atlantic City and Myrtle Beach are the only new Spirit domestic markets that American doesn’t currently serve from Miami.

To Kirby, those two routes are the ones that impress him the most. Though there might not be enough demand for Spirit’s competitors to fly these two routes, the airline thinks it can make them work.

Why? “Because of our established presence and brand awareness in Myrtle Beach and Atlantic City, we can do things in those markets that probably don’t pencil out for most carriers,” according to Kirby.

It’ll be interesting to monitor how these two markets perform, but for a long-time network planner like Kirby, having a monopoly makes them the most interesting.

Physical constraints require a small delay

When Spirit unveiled its Miami launch strategy in June, the airline was planning to fly all 31 new routes by Nov. 18. However, three of them — San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO), San Salvador (SAL) and St. Thomas (STT) – have now been delayed until the first week of January.

It’s not a demand issue, according to Kirby. Rather, it boils down to getting access to gates at the Miami International Airport.

At launch, the airline will operate from just one gate in Concourse J that’s capable of handling both domestic and international flights. Spirit will also use four gates in Concourse G, but those can’t handle international arrivals (because the concourse doesn’t have a customs facility).

At launch, the airport authorities “asked us to consolidate our operation to just one J gate. We originally were expecting to be able to spill over a little bit to other gates in the J Concourse, but they asked us to confine our operation as they work through the plans with international carriers” that are resuming flights to Miami, Kirby said.

The airline will need to wait until early January to access additional gates in Concourse J capable of handling international arrivals, hence the two-month delay on the three aforementioned routes.

No hub yet, but growth is being charted

By the time all the routes launch, you might think that Spirit would call Miami a “hub” or “base.” But that’s not happening just yet, according to Kirby.

The airline will continue to invest in Miami, but it’s not yet an operating base.

“We have a lot of confidence because we’re headquartered in South Florida and many customers know our brand very well. So we feel that this is something that’s going to work for the long-term,” Kirby said when asked to explain Spirit’s strategy in Miami.

Though all the attention is currently focused on the big launch, “you’ve got to digest it, get some traction and then grow from there,” Kirby explained.

He didn’t detail any additional markets under consideration, but “yes, we do have a list of next best opportunities, both domestic and international,” according to Kirby.

Pressed for an answer, he said to “look at our Fort Lauderdale portfolio, there are a number of strong markets for us in Fort Lauderdale that we’re not serving in Miami yet.”

Time will tell what’s next for Miami’s soon-to-become second-largest carrier. But, for now, observers can only guess at what might come next.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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