Apples and oranges? Peanuts and sandwiches? Southwest and Frontier?

by Janice Hough on July 31, 2009

These days, travelers may be forgiven for assuming the U.S. airline industry is eventually going to become one big giant code-share.

Southwest Airlines, however, has always seemed to march to a different drummer in many ways, not least of which with their “Keep It Simple, Stupid” model of having all one plane type, no real catering, and no pre-assigned seats.

Which makes today’s report that Southwest is planning to bid against Republic Airways for Frontier Airlines more than a little surprising.

Now, I’m not an airline analyst, but Southwest and Frontier, while both considered “discount carriers,” are very different airlines. For starters, Frontier doesn’t fly the same Boeing 737s used by Southwest, they use Airbuses. In addition, Frontier uses the more standard airline model of $150 change fees for tickets, they pre-assign seats, and while there are no free peanuts, they sell sandwiches and other food on board.

Perhaps most complicating, unlike Southwest, Frontier has interline agreements with other airlines. (To translate the jargon, “interline agreements” means that an airline can check baggage and accept tickets from other carriers.)

Now it is possible what Southwest really wants from Frontier Airlines is their route structure and gate slots. But scrapping the planes and indeed most of the operational structure of Frontier would presumably be neither easy nor inexpensive.

And if Southwest operates Frontier as a subsidiary, would they accept Frontier tickets and vice versa? (And what would that do to Frontier’s arrangements with other airlines?)

As I have written before, I have slowly come to appreciate Southwest’s style, simply because it seem to create less problems. But “simple” doesn’t seem to be the word to describe this potential takeover.

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  • Frank

    Now it is possible what Southwest really wants from Frontier Airlines is their route structure and gate slots. But scrapping the planes and indeed most of the operational structure of Frontier would presumably be neither easy nor inexpensive.
    ============================================================

    MAP: http://www.frontierairlines.com/frontier/content/pages/shared/largeFlightMap.html

    will gain a major presence in DEN, gain more slots in LGA, get into the slot controlled airport of DCA. New presence in ATL. Gain international presence with a few Mexico destinations.

    all for the (beginning bid) of 113 million.

  • occasional traveler

    Interesting perspective…in my mind, Southwest and Frontier Airlines have a lot more in common than Frontier does with other airlines. When I lived in Denver (2002-2006), I always flew Frontier over other US airlines when I had the chance. They had bigger seats, cleaner planes, and much nicer people working for them. Their flights were just so much less stressful than the alternative. I remember calling them once and getting a better price on my plane ticket than if I used their website! Plus they helped me ship my dogs to Texas and were really nice about it. In general I had very positive experiences with them.

    I haven’t had a chance to fly on Frontier since I’ve moved away from Denver, so maybe there were a lot of changes in the interim. I’ve noticed lately that Frontier’s website is awful. But I hope that if Southwest buys Frontier that they bring that spirit back that made them such a pleasure to fly a few years back. In fact, I’m more hopeful about Southwest getting them than this Republic Airways. Who are those guys anyway?

  • Hapgood

    As you noted, attempting to integrate Frontier’s infrastructure into Southwest would make no sense at all. A key ingredient in Southwest’s recipe for success is the use of a single aircraft type. I can’t imagine they would discard that. The only credible explanation is that they want to acquire Frontier’s routes and gate slots and get rid of everything else.

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