Amid Frontier turmoil, future of its Aspen service is shaky
by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Monday, August 8, 2011
Another round of setbacks for Frontier Airlines has raised questions about how long the company will continue flying in and out of Aspen.
“The long-term security of Aspen service from Frontier Airlines is tenuous, and it was a strong motivating factor for working with American Airlines,” said Bill Tomcich, local airline liaison and president of the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass.
Last month, American announced it would begin flying seasonal service to Aspen from Dallas and Los Angeles, encouraged by an incentive deal from local governments and business interests.
Frontier’s parent company, Republic Airways, reported a $15 million loss in the second quarter of this year and last week its stock hit a year-long low.
The losses come after a first-quarter deficit of $55 million for Republic and amid an ongoing restructuring effort at Frontier, where the parent company hopes to cut $120 million in costs.
Republic won concessions from Frontier’s pilots union and flight attendants to make the restructuring work this summer, only to be sued by the Teamsters union last week in an effort to block the deal.
In June, Frontier CEO Brian Bedford told employees that Frontier would fold if the restructuring didn’t happen.
“Without the restructuring, Frontier would no longer be viable,” he wrote to employees in a June 10 announcement.
A Frontier spokesman could not be reached for comment last week.
The most pressing question for Frontier’s Aspen service is how long the company will continue flying its four-plane fleet of Bombardier Q-400 turboprop aircraft. It’s the only plane in Frontier’s fleet equipped to fly into Aspen’s small airport. The company has been shopping the fleet since at least last year.
In early August of last year, the company struck a deal to sell off its Q-400 fleet, but the agreement soured.
Mike Boyd, of the Evergreen-based airline consulting firm Boyd Group International, said he believes Frontier will sell the planes and stop serving Aspen as quickly as possible. He added that the company’s greater financial difficulties won’t affect Aspen service in the meantime.
“Frontier service [to Aspen] will go away as soon as they find a way to get rid of those Q-400s,” he said. “That’s totally without regard to anything else. The company can grow, it can shrink — it doesn’t matter. Frontier and Aspen are parting ways.”
Tomcich said he is uneasy about both the fleet question and Frontier’s financial viability.
“I’m really concerned about the Q-400 and the airline as a whole,” Tomcich said.
Under a cloud of financial uncertainty, Frontier has still offered continuous service to Aspen since the spring of 2008. The first Aspen flights took off weeks after Frontier had declared bankruptcy. Republic bought the carrier in 2009.
In conversations with Frontier regarding the Q-400, Tomcich said airline officials have offered “somewhat mixed messages,” saying they want to keep the Q-400 indefinitely at some times, and that they will unload them if they find an interested buyer at others.
Nonetheless, Tomcich noted, the Aspen market was more popular than ever for Frontier last winter, when it carried a 73 percent plane passenger load — the highest winter load for Frontier since the airline came to Aspen.
“That bodes well for their Aspen service going forward,” he added.
An airport runway extension, slated for completion this fall, would promise even more opportunity for passenger loads.
“We love Frontier Airlines and they’ve done wonderful things for this market and this community,” Tomcich said. “We wish them luck.”
Boyd said the success and popularity of Frontier’s service to Aspen was a bright spot in the company’s failed short-trip turboprop service across the West, which it called “Lynx.”
“The whole Lynx strategy was a flop and it lost them money,” Boyd said. “It certainly wasn’t a failure for Aspen, but it was an economic failure [overall].”
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