When the first Frontier Airlines jet kicking off regular service at Memphis International Airport arrives Friday, March 7, from Denver at gate C7, it will symbolize just how much the airport has changed. It is also an indication of how the airport continues to evolve.
The latest sign of the evolving Memphis International Airport comes as Frontier Airlines kicks off service Friday, March 7. American Airlines/US Airways has also announced three daily flights to Philadelphia.
The new Frontier service begins a day after American Airlines/US Airways announced it will add three daily nonstop flights between Memphis and Philadelphia starting June 5.
American and US Airways completed their merger in December.
US Airways launched Memphis-Washington, D.C., air service a year ago this month, pre-merger, in the first indication that cuts in air service by Delta Air Lines at Memphis had caught the attention of other carriers.
It’s been six years since Frontier has been in the Memphis air travel market, and what happened during Frontier’s first attempt to enter the Memphis market in 2007 was a vivid lesson in the politics of a “fortress hub” airport.
At the time, Memphis International was a hub of Northwest Airlines and, later, Delta Airlines.
Frontier saw opportunities, and Northwest responded to the competition by temporarily dropping fares on the same service. Frontier pulled out of Memphis International Airport in less than a year.
The message resonated with other domestic discount carriers, which were hesitant to establish ties to Memphis even as the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority tried to recruit them and Delta began massive cuts to its service over several years as a prelude to closing its Memphis hub last year.
Frontier, which announced its Memphis re-entry in October, will start with four scheduled flights a week at the airport. But the Denver-based airline has already announced it will increase that to daily service starting in June.
“So that certainly bodes well for the business they’ve been able to do since they announced they were coming back,” said Glen Thomas, spokesman for the airport authority.
The American Airlines/US Airways announcement makes June a milestone month as Memphis International Airport continues to have a significantly smaller passenger service footprint but a clear departure from what the airport has been for decades.
Frontier Airlines representative Katie O’Malley said the recent changes at Memphis International were the motivation for a re-entry into the Memphis market, then an expansion announcement even before the re-entry, prompted by bookings after the October announcement.
“The decision that really drove that was the affordable fares that were currently in the market,” she said. “We saw an opportunity for residents in the area to take advantage of our ultra-low fares.”
In 2007, connecting flights comprised the majority of airport passenger traffic. Today, the bulk is origin-and-destination traffic – passengers who are flying to or departing Memphis.
Delta featured more than 300 scheduled daily flights just before the first round of cuts to its Memphis service in 2011. The cuts came close behind several expansions of Delta service in 2010.
With an initial 20 percent cut in flight activity at Memphis International Airport, Delta consolidated its operations in Concourse B, leaving other gates open and unused.
By the pre-Delta rollback standards, four or five nonstop flights a week might not sound like much. But Memphis International Airport operates on a different scale these days.
The airport’s January numbers show 86 daily flights compared with 134 a year earlier. Twenty-seven of the 86 were flights by major airlines, including 15 by Delta, six by American and US Airways and six by Southwest Airlines.
The American and US Airways flights are still listed separately as the integration of the two companies, post merger continues.
There were twice as many regional or commuter daily flights.
But daily flights by major carriers accounted for more than half of the 265,134 passengers for January. That compares with 379,059 in January 2012.
On an annual basis, the airport dipped below 10 million passengers in 2011 with the first round of Delta cuts, posting 8.7 million passengers, a 12.6 percent drop from 2010.
In 2012, the number of passengers dropped to 6.7 million – a bigger percentage annual drop of 22.7 percent.
And for 2013, Memphis International Airport statistics showed 4.5 million passengers for the year, down 31.9 percent from 2012.
Last month, the airport authority board approved a $114 million consolidation of airport functions into Concourse B, the site of Delta’s original consolidation four years ago.
Ticket counters will remain in all three concourses, but the consolidation includes demolishing about 25 percent of the airport’s gates overall.