Those that are frequent readers of my blog will know I don’t spend a lot of time on low-cost carriers. If you correctly categorize Southwest as a “used-to-be low-cost carrier”, then virtually never. But, this is where the Big 3 of American, Delta and United have hurt themselves.
Over the past few years the Big 3 have significantly devalued their frequent flier programs. American Airlines was the most recent to do so, removing a ton of benefits for frequent fliers. In doing so, they broke through a fundamental barrier. In the past, the airlines would give you miles based on distance and elite status. Going forward, customers earn miles based on how much they paid for your ticket. American even went so far as to say they’ll decide whether to give you an upgrade based on how much you’ve spent with them over the past year.
They also made elite status less valuable, removing and reducing benefits. There’s very little incentive to keep flying once you’ve earned status for a given year. And, if you’re not chasing elite status, you’re certainly better off chasing the cheapest non-stop flight at the time you need than factoring in the value of the miles you receive.
I found myself in the position of needing to get from Cincinnati to Denver recently for a work trip. United wanted almost $500 for the privilege of a connecting flight through Chicago. Frontier offered up the same choice for around $40. I had to purchase a carry-on bag and chose to purchase a better seat, but I was still saving roughly $400. Since I wasn’t chasing a higher status level with United, the changes they’ve made essentially pushed me to consider Frontier here.
My flight departed from the end of one of the concourses at Cincinnati Airport. This was a sleepy concourse compared to the ones Delta occupies. The flight boarded on time. They allowed connecting passengers to get back on first, then elite members. Despite a full flight of 230 seats, there were only 2 elite members who boarded.
That’s not terribly surprising. You need 20,000 miles or 25 segments to qualify for elite status with Frontier. That’s not impossible, but they still don’t have a huge route network. And, the biggest downside for a business traveler to 20,000 miles on Frontier is the lack of frequency to some destinations. Well, other than the uncomfortable seats. More on that later. Business travelers can have a lot riding on an on-time flight. If a flight is delayed/cancelled on a low-cost carrier, it could be hours (or the next day) before the next available flight. And, airlines like Frontier lack interline agreements with all the other major carriers to help deal with irregular operations (IRROPS). The lack of depth in schedule and interline agreements are a major factor on why I don’t choose low-cost carriers more often.
I had sprung the extra few bucks to get a stretch seat instead of regular seating. That entitled me to board early, though there was no rush to get overhead space. Frontier charges for carry-on space and the bins definitely were not full when we pushed back. In this instance, I embrace the carry-on fee. Frontier puts 230 passengers on their version of the Airbus A321. In comparison, American appears to seat 187 in the US Airways config. Now, that plane has a first class cabin and some extra legroom seating. Frontier only had a few rows of stretch seating on my aircraft. If all 230 people were allowed to bring on a carry-on bag, there would be a lot of disappointed folks.
My seat was actually reasonably comfortable, especially given that I had set low expectations. British Airways has the most comfortable slimline seat I’ve sat in. This was nowhere near that, but much better than the United seats of doom. I was in the bulkhead row so I had plenty of legroom.
The tray table was stored in the armrest, typical in bulkhead rows. I used my iPad during the flight but would have had no problem using my 13″ MacBook Air. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find power outlets on these planes, not even a secret hidden one like this. You won’t find Wi-Fi, another negative for business travelers who want to stay in contact during the flight.
There’s no recline and the armrest is kinda wimpy, but there’s some cushion to the back and seat bottom. Overall, it wasn’t a bad seat for my 2+ hour flight.
After the flight was over, I moved back one row to see what a non-bulkhead stretch seating row felt like. I still had plenty of legroom and a full tray table that was a bit more sturdy.
Holy hell. This isn’t an airplane seat. It’s barely a bus seat. In a zany, though interesting, cost-cutting move, the seats don’t actually have a cover to the back. It’s just exposed metal. It ain’t pretty, but doesn’t really make a huge difference. But, the tray table. Just awful. You couldn’t use any laptop I’ve ever owned on this tray table. You could probably stand an iPad up on it to watch a movie. But, I’m not even sure you could type on the screen to do work.
The seats appear to have less padding but I didn’t sit in them for long. Did I mention the tray table? I guess they felt like they had to have one for the drinks they sell to customers (sorry, no freebies there). Otherwise, not sure why you bother with a tray that wimpy.
I found the flight crew to be friendly and engaging. I asked them for a couple of trading cards to bring home to my kids and they were more than happy to oblige. Frontier Airlines gives out trading cards with all of the different animals that appear on the tails of their planes to kids flying with them.
A bottled water, soda, juice or snack item will set you back $3. Alcoholic drinks are $8. I sanity checked the pricing against United Airlines (they were handy on a flight I had this morning) and found them to be comparable. Given the prices of things in the terminal, I don’t regard these prices as unreasonable. You can purchase a package/bundle of items and save enough money to make the prices almost cheap by airport standards.
The Final Two Pennies
Would I fly Frontier again? Sure. I definitely would consider them on a case-by-case basis. As a business traveler, I wouldn’t choose to fly them for flights longer than an hour unless I could make sure I had stretch seating. They might call them “laptop computers” but I don’t relish the thought of trying to work with my computer on my lap for a couple of hours while potentially balancing a drink and/or snack on the postage stamp sized tray table.
As a leisure traveler, I would absolutely look at Frontier for future trips. I wouldn’t consider them for things like heading out to catch a cruise ship or something else time-sensitive. They just don’t have enough frequency to give me comfort, and the lack of interline agreements exacerbates that worry for me. But, given how frequently they run $20 one-way special fares out of my home airport of Washington-Dulles, my family of four could save a bunch of money on short regional trips.
I’m still leery of relying on Frontier Airlines as a business traveler for the reasons mentioned. I can deal with a small seat and no Wi-Fi on shorter flights. But, the vast majority of time I get on a plane, I need to be there when it lands.
That’s the challenge low-cost carriers face in trying to drive higher fares. Some, like Spirit, increase profitability through fees for things like assisted check-in and bags. Others, like Southwest, break out of the mold and convince customers to pay more for what they offer. Low-cost carriers are here to stay, and the Big 3 feel like they need to compete. That’s the reason you see them offering “Basic Economy”. United’s most recent offering here is more painful than Delta’s, with American’s details still to come. The progression of service cuts and extra fees is a good indication there’s enough of a perceived appetite from customers to pay less, no matter how uncomfortable they are.
The post I Flew Frontier, Saved $400 And Didn’t Die. My Frontier Airlines Review was published first on Pizza in Motion