CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Another low-cost carrier is starting service to Charlotte Douglas International Airport next year, but it’s unclear whether the influx of new arrivals will substantially lower airfares or just add more variety to the plane tails lined up at Charlotte’s gates.
Frontier Airlines said Wednesday that it plans to begin flying from Charlotte to Trenton-Mercer Airport, in New Jersey, four times a week starting on Feb. 12. Sale fares for tickets booked by Oct. 20 start as low as $39 each way, the company said.
But an expert warned Charlotteans not to expect a major drop in prices across the board.
“Prices are really route-by-route based,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare tracking website FareCompare.com. “Definitely the price is going down to New Jersey. But will it go down from Charlotte to Chicago? No.”
Denver-based Frontier joins Southwest Airlines, which began six daily flights at Charlotte Douglas in April, and Allegiant Airlines, which will start service from Concord Regional Airport to Orlando in December.
“I think it’s always good for our passengers to have more options,” said Charlotte Douglas interim aviation director Brent Cagle. “We’re really excited Frontier is coming.”
Charlotte Douglas has long been a US Airways stronghold. It’s one of the most heavily-concentrated hub airports in the country, with about 90 percent of daily flights operated by US Airways. That figure could increase to about 93 percent if US Airways and American Airlines win the right to merge later this year.
For local passengers, Charlotte Douglas is the 25th most-expensive airport out of the nation’s top 100, according to federal data. A domestic round-trip ticket from Charlotte averages $417.
Frontier is a small carrier, often noted for its colorful, animal-centric tail designs. But the company has ambitions to grow and compete as an ultra-low-cost carrier, in the mode of Spirit Airlines.
Frontier currently flies to more than 75 destinations in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean, on a fleet of 52 small and mid-size Airbus jets.
The company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Republic Airways. Last week, Republic said it was spinning off Frontier and selling the small airline to a private equity firm, Indigo Partners, for $145 million worth of cash and debt.
Indigo was a major investor in Spirit, a carrier known for its no-frills policies. Bill Franke, head of Indigo, said last week that he wants to expand Frontier aggressively.
“We endorse and will support continued efforts to build Frontier into a leading nationwide ultra-low cost carrier,” said Franke, in a statement. “As airline fares continue to move up, passengers need affordable travel alternatives. Our goal will be to meet that need in more markets.”
Frontier also announced Wednesday that it plans to add service from Cincinnati to Trenton and from Memphis to Denver.
Ultra-low-cost carriers are known for low-cost tickets but also for a raft of fees that exceeds what travelers pay on major carriers. For example, Spirit charges at least $25 for a carry-on bag, and Frontier charges $25 or more for a carry-on bag depending on what kind of ticket a customer buys.
Those airlines target almost exclusively leisure travelers, many of whom have been turned off by rising airfare on the major carriers.
Seaney said that Frontier is likely to be successful in Charlotte with a limited number of flights to one destination.
But he said the lack of critical mass means that they likely won’t expand much. Low-cost airlines typically don’t draw more lucrative business travelers, who are willing to pay more for direct flights to major airports, at convenient times.
Frontier’s service in Charlotte will be limited to four days a week and will operate on the relatively small Airbus A319 jet, which carries up to 138 passengers. The flights will go from Charlotte to a secondary airport in the northeast, Trenton, rather than into a major airport such as LaGuardia or Newark.
“If you don’t have the frequency of schedule you need to get the business travelers, you’ll never grow,” Seaney said. He also said he expects US Airways would vigorously defend any serious, concerted challenge to its status as Charlotte’s major carrier.
“US Airways would guard that fortress hub status with their life,” Seaney said. US Airways operates more than 600 flights a day from Charlotte, its busiest hub.
Still, Seaney said Frontier might well pursue limited expansion locally in the future if they identify another profitable, direct market from Charlotte Douglas.
“They’re probing,” Seaney said.
Cagle said talks with Frontier have been going on for several months, since the airline first approached Charlotte Douglas. Although Trenton is a secondary market, Cagle said it will be convenient for many travelers.
“It puts people into a densely populated region there, and it’s very accessible for a lot of different places,” he said.
Frontier said Trenton’s airport is a convenient option for travelers.
“Customers who fly to Trenton-Mercer Airport can enjoy a newly upgraded airport with fewer hassles and convenient parking compared with other airports in the region,” said Daniel Shurz, Frontier senior vice president, in a statement.
Cagle said he hasn’t had any talks with Frontier about expanding beyond Trenton but hopes the airline, and others, will keep adding to Charlotte.
“We’re going after any airline who would like to start service here,” Cagle said. “We would welcome all new entrants.”