Frontier Airlines Lands Memphis Return

By Amos Maki

Frontier Airlines made a triumphant return to Memphis Friday, March, 7, complete with pilots and passengers wearing Elvis sunglasses.

Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, welcomes Frontier Airlines back to the Memphis market.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Frontier jet from Denver – with “Hector” the otter emblazoned on its tail – arrived at Gate C7 at Memphis International Airport just before 1:30 p.m., and passengers were greeted with a celebratory atmosphere, including light jazz music and balloons.

“I kind of lucked out with the free glasses and celebration, so I’m pretty stoked,” said Matthew Chafin, who traveled from Hawaii to Memphis on his way to a wedding in Louisiana.

Frontier’s return was a symbolic moment for both the airline and Memphis International. The Denver-based airline was essentially run out of town six years ago because of Northwest Airlines’ stranglehold on the airport, which is currently transforming itself from a fortress hub dominated first by Northwest and then by Delta into an origin-and-destination airport with more competition.

“Today is what we believe is a new step forward,” said Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “We previously had a hub here in Memphis and we are reinventing ourselves as an origin-and-destination airport, and Frontier Airlines represents the first of many steps to what we refer to as the pursuit of frequent, affordable air service.”

The Frontier Airlines flight Friday marked the beginning of four nonstops a week between Memphis and Denver, service that will increase to daily flights beginning June 14.

The new Frontier service began a day after American Airlines/US Airways announced it will add three daily nonstop flights between Memphis and Philadelphia starting June 5.

Frontier’s return to the skies above Memphis is a reflection of just how much things have changed at Memphis International over the last several years.

Frontier first landed in Memphis in 2007, but Northwest Airlines responded by slashing fares or launching new routes to destinations Frontier serviced, forcing Frontier out of town in 2008.

But following several years of service reductions, Delta Air Lines last year shut down its Memphis hub, opening the door for more competition from legacy and low-cost carriers.

Frontier Airlines returned to the Memphis market Friday, March 7, when its first flight arrived from Denver.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Airlines have responded cautiously but favorably to Delta’s downsizing and invitations from the Airport Authority.

In addition to the increased flights from American Airlines/US Airways, Southwest Airlines began service at the airport in November and plans on adding a second flight to Baltimore this summer.

Memphis International’s transition from an airport dominated by connecting flights to one focused on generating more O&D traffic has meant fewer nonstop destinations. But it also opened the door for low-cost carriers to enter the market, something flyers had been requesting for years but was prevented by the hub.

The airport’s January numbers show 86 daily flights compared with 134 a year earlier and more than 300 at the peak of hub operations.

Because of the reductions, the airport authority is pursuing a $114 million modernization plan that will consolidate most airport functions into Concourse B. Around one-fourth of the overall gates will be torn down and the remaining facilities will be upgraded.

Around 20 gates at the southern ends of Concourses A and C will be demolished and the remaining portions of both concourses will be mothballed for future use. After the project, which will begin this year and be done in multiple phases over six or seven years, the airport will have around 60 gates, more than enough to handle the 2.2 million passengers who use the facility annually, and will accommodate possible future expansions.