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VOL. 128 | NO. 198 | Thursday, October 10, 2013

Frontier Airlines Returns to Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Five years after Frontier Airlines’ rapid exit from Memphis International Airport, Frontier executives announced Wednesday, Oct. 9, the discount air carrier will return to town with four weekly nonstop flights between Memphis and Denver starting March 7.

The Denver-based airline’s foray into Memphis started in 2007, at a time when Northwest Airlines had a hub at Memphis International Airport. Northwest responded to Frontier’s presence by increasing flights and lowering airfares to markets Frontier served out of Memphis, and Frontier ended service here after 11 months.

The Frontier experience served as an example for other discount and domestic air carriers that might have considered trying to compete with Northwest’s – and later Delta Air Lines’ – high Memphis airfares. And the experience remained a potent example of how rough life could be during and in the wake of the recession for smaller air carriers trying to go against a dominant global carrier in a hub market.

Even after Northwest merged with Delta Air Lines – and after Delta steadily cut local air service and continued to raise airfares in Memphis – few other carriers were willing to try to exploit the situation, because of the Frontier example.

Frontier’s Wednesday announcement comes in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 start of Southwest Airlines’ service at Memphis International Airport and in the wake of Delta’s exit from Memphis International as a hub carrier starting this month.

Greg Aretakis, Frontier’s vice president of network and revenue, said the timing is no coincidence.

“Frankly, Frontier at that time had to file bankruptcy to preserve its assets. At that time, Memphis was one of a number of cities that the company peeled back from as it was working its way through its bankruptcy,” Aretakis said, referring to the impact of the recession on the airline industry as a whole after Frontier’s first arrival in Memphis. “I don’t think anything’s changed in terms of how much we like this metro. … The story’s been out there for years. Delta’s given up and they’ve pulled out service, and this community needs service. It’s a big city with a history of traveling. They need real airplanes.”

Aretakis touted $69 fares for the Frontier service booked through Sunday, Oct. 12, and a Frontier fleet that doesn’t include regional jets. The Memphis service – on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays – will be on 138-seat Airbus 319 aircraft.

While the new service is only to Denver, Aretakis also pointed out Denver is a connection to other western cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority board chairman Jack Sammons has been aggressively courting domestic discount air carriers to reshape Memphis air service following the Delta cuts and dehubbing of Memphis International Airport.

He made the announcement in the “C” terminal of the airport after arriving back in Memphis on a redeye flight Wednesday from Las Vegas, where he had been attending what is known as the “route convention,” the annual airline industry gathering where carriers talk about their plans for new air service.

Sammons termed the Frontier service “the beginning of a new era of affordable airfare choices for our passengers.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen also praised the decision by Frontier, saying the airport is “a critically important transportation link in the Mid-South.”

The Frontier announcement came a week after its parent company, Republic Airways Holdings, said it had agreed to sell Frontier to an affiliate of the private-equity firm Indigo Partners, which was an early investor in low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines.

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