Routes Americas 2021: Airline CEO Heavyweights – Frontier and Spirit
The Routes Americas 2021 conference heard from the two leading ultra low cost carriers in the Americas – Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines – on how they have re-planned their networks during COVID-19, what their major plans are for the next few years to rebuild demand, and what they need from airports during this time.
The session was moderated by Vicki Jaramillo, Senior Director Marketing & Air Service Development, Orlando International Airport, with the panellists including Barry Biffle, President & CEO, Frontier Airlines, Ted Christie, President & CEO, Spirit Airlines, and Roger Dow, President & CEO, U.S. Travel Association.
Spirit Airlines: “We’re going to double over the next five years”
Ted Christie, President & CEO, Spirit Airlines, described the past year as the most challenging of his career. “What I’m most proud of is how my team reacted to that. It started with the network – we were forced to unwind the airline completely and then develop new tools to figure out how to put it back together again. The other takeaway is how critical communication is. When you go from 750 flights a day to 50 flights a day, everybody working with us is wondering what is going on, and our communications team went full speed ahead.”
Spirit plans to recover 2019 capacity by the year-end and then continue growing in 2022. It has some exciting plans in terms of fleet strategy and future growth. “We’re going to double over the next five years,” said Christie. “We have around 160 aircraft today and another 160 or so on order. Those aircraft are going to get deployed and we see a massive opportunity for them. As far as the fleet strategy goes, one of the hallmarks of being efficient and low-cost is we can keep a lot of things simple, and that means keeping the aircraft simple.”
Frontier Airlines: 10-20% growth per year to continue
Barry Biffle, President & CEO, Frontier Airlines, explained that one of the key takeaways from the pandemic is how the carrier changed its business in a way that has made it more modular. “We’re opening more and more crew bases as a result, which makes us so much more flexible. We believe more bases are going to make us more desirable for pilots and flight attendants.”
He, similarly, emphasised the importance of communication and of learning new ways to communicate during the pandemic.
Frontier plans to recover to 2019 levels from this summer and build from there. In terms of fleet strategy going forward and future growth plans, the airline has around 110 aircraft today and another 150 on order. “We’ll double the size of the business. We’ve been growing 10-20% per year for the last five years and that will continue. We have plenty of aircraft coming and are happy to talk about growth opportunities.”
U.S. Travel Association emphasises importance of travel to the whole economy
Roger Dow, President & CEO, explained that the U.S. Travel Association has had to pivot as a result of the pandemic. “Our whole mission was to get more people travelling to and within the United States. So, our first pivot was survival and relief, getting the government to understand how critical this industry is to the economy. Communication also became critical.”
The U.S. Travel Association is now focused on stimulus and getting the business back, encouraging the whole travel ecosystem to work together.
In terms of travel bans, the big challenge is opening up international routes. “We’re working very hard with the airlines, the whole travel industry, and the administration, to open up the UK,” said Dow. “We believe that if we can open up the UK, other markets will follow very quickly. The other challenge we have is opening up Canada. To give some perspective, 22 million Canadians travel to the United States every year.”
The current biggest legislative focus for the U.S. Travel Association is the Hospitality and Commerce Jobs Recovery Act. “In there is a tax credit for middle income families – we know that when they travel they spend money, which helps create jobs, so it pays huge dividends. The travel industry didn’t cause this problem, but we need some help to recover from it.”