Frontier Airlines ditches $39 empty seats sale after heavy criticism
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Airline announces change Thursday night in letter to congressmen
Frontier Airlines’ latest effort to drum up extra business during the coronavirus pandemic never got off the ground.
The Denver-based budget carrier Wednesday night pulled the plug on its “more room” sales offer, where a passenger could buy an empty middle seat on flights for $39 and up. The deal was heavily criticized, including by Congressional leaders.
In a letter addressed to U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tennesee and Jesus G. ‘Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois, and U.S. Senator Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said his airline would rescind the more room pricing policy that was set to take effect on Frontier flights starting Friday. The letter was apparently in response to correspondence from the leaders earlier in the day.
Biffle has been making the media rounds to promote the new program this week, including speaking with a Denver Post reporter on Tuesday.
“We recognize the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent. We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space,” Biffle wrote. “We will leave the seats blocked which were associated with this product and honor purchases made by all customers who bought the product up until now.”
Frontier has been selling seats for the “more room” initiative since Monday. It was supposed to be available to passengers flying between Friday and Aug. 31 at least. When coupled with the airline’s policy mandating all flyers wear face coverings aboard Frontier aircraft starting Friday, it was part of the airline’s plan to offer “highest levels of passenger well-being and comfort,” according to a news release announcing the program.
“We continue to see a lot of feedback from customers that say ‘OK, I get it, I see that I’m safe but I’d just like a little more peace of mind,’ so we have offered this product, this guaranteed middle seat open,” Biffle told The Denver Post on Tuesday.
The “more room” initiative drew immediate criticism on social media this week with some referring to it as a cash grab playing on people’s fears of the deadly COVID-19 virus. It was a view point apparently shared by Cohen, Garcia and Markey.
Biffle on Tuesday said that his airline and others already are letting people fan out on flights for free when there is space available and rejected the idea that “more room” was a move the airline was making to cash in our fear. Frontier also was looking into this policy before the pandemic hit, he said.
“We offer the lowest total prices in the United States. Period. So we are not profiteering off customers at all,” Biffle said. “We don’t know how much real demand there is for this. And it’s a little like a belt and suspenders, because, again, we believe you are safe on Frontier without this.”
Biffle pointed to Frontier’s aircraft cleaning efforts — regularly fogging the interior of planes with a disinfectant mist that “kills the virus on contact,” and a mandatory health and safety survey that passengers must fill out before flying — as evidence the airline is doing all it can to ensure passenger safety. In two weeks, the airline plans to start checking the temperatures of everyone boarding planes.
Prior to bowing to Congressional criticism, Frontier was also approved for a bundle of federal bailout money. The airline has been approved for $200 million in federal payroll support — a $170 million grant and $30 million in loans — about half of which is it has already received, Biffle said. The company is also working on the details of a $498 million loan funded through the CARES Act, according to a spokeswoman.
The funding comes as the airline has sought to stop serving 33 markets through June 10. The route suspension requests were born out a lack of demand, Biffle said.
In an April 25 order previously covered by the Denver Business Journal, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted Frontier’s request to stop serving Detroit, Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island. The local airport authority for Bloomington, Illinois also granted Frontier permission to stop flying there for a limited time.
Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an Evergreen-based aviation consulting and forecasting business, said he is of the mind that Frontier should have been granted all of its route suspension requests even if the markets didn’t have other carriers to serve them.
“It is outrageous and demonstrably stupid of the DOT to require an airplane to fly when that airplane is empty,” he said.
Biffle on Tuesday was bullish on Frontier’s prospects if the pandemic recedes. The company won’t see the 15% increase in passenger traffic and revenue it was projecting at the beginning of the year, but he is hopeful 2020 could be flat in spite of the crisis. He noted that the airline went from carrying 80,000 passengers a day down to 3,000 in recent months, but over the last few days, he has seen that number creep back up to 10,000.
Passenger throughput at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints around the country has ticked up gradually after cratering in early April. Still, Tuesday’s numbers were down almost 94% compared to May 5, 2019.
“It’s not going to be long before airplanes are full again,” Biffle said. “Our plan is to have our entire fleet back in the air in July and all of our destinations should be served.”
Boyd, the consultant, sees Frontier recovery coming a lot quicker than that of larger legacy carriers such as United Airlines or Delta, thanks to its point-to-point business model and its willingness to fly to places like Jackson, Mississippi, .
“I can’t go to Las Vegas. It’s closed, but if I could, I would bet on Frontier,” he said.