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Tag: Frontier Airlines

Is more leg room coming?

The general public loves to hate the airlines. Unfortunately, much of that ire is the fault of the airlines themselves. Among the numerous complaints are non-refundable tickets, oversold flights, baggage fees, and the crowded cabins— made worse with uncomfortable seats.

In the post-deregulation world, two things happened with respect to seats: People got bigger, and seats got closer. Seat pitch—the measurement between the back of the seat in front of you and your seat—has steadily shrunk, especially in economy class.

Running an airline is an incredibly expensive venture, far more so than most businesses. Once an airplane leaves the gate, the empty seats can’t be sold—there’s no clearance rack or discount shelf. The airlines argue that the layout and discomfort of the cabin is simply a reflection of what the flying public demands and will tolerate.

Given that flights are flying with record load factors, they must be more right than wrong. More than 70 percent of air travelers only fly once a year, and by some measures, that number is over 80 percent. From the airlines’ perspective, such infrequent travelers are a bit of a captive audience, and because we as a society are so price-sensitive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for one carrier to stick its neck out and increase cabin comfort at the risk of lost revenue and profit.

That could be about to change, however, as the FAA funding bill that has passed the House includes a mandate for a new, greater minimum seat pitch, thus offering all of us a bit more leg room. (There is also talk about making the seats a bit wider, but I’m not sure the widening of the waistline will get as much attention as more legroom.)

The airlines have quietly told Congress that they’re willing to hold back on fighting seat pitch as long as the rules are industry wide and don’t single out any one company by name. Carriers, will however, be pointed out by default, as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier are known to have some of the most cramped cabins. Forcing these carriers to remove some seats will also force them to be more price competitive with the bigger carriers.

But there’s more at play here. The big issue is passenger evacuation in an emergency. The FARs state that a manufacturer has to certify that an airplane can be evacuated in 90 seconds with one exit blocked. Apparently, some of those certification tests include computer modeling. If this is the case, and there really is concern that a 767 can’t be evacuated in 90 seconds, the potential is there for an incredibly expensive recertification process and/or modifications to the planes. It’s a no-brainer to agree to take some seats out while also addressing one of the most common complaints.
If this rule goes through—and that’s a big “if”—it won’t take immediate effect. The airlines will likely have a couple of years to comply. Seat maps will change, and yes, air fares will increase, though marginally.

On the other hand, there will be plenty of spare seats in the hangar if someone gets sick.—Chip Wright

Will there be any more consolidation?

The airline industry has gone through several cycles of consolidation in the last 10 to 15 years: ValuJet/AirTran, AirTran/Southwest, TWA/American, USAir/America West, USAir/American, Delta/Northwest, and United/Continental at the majors. At the regionals, Republic/Chautauqua/Shuttle America, SkyWest/ASA/ExpressJet and Mesaba/Pinnacle have changed the landscape. Alaska and Virgin America are the most recent to announce plans to wed.

Of late, there have been rumors about a jetBlue merger, and there has long been talk of Spirit and Frontier. JetBlue seems to be the most interesting one, because that airline has become a major powerhouse with hubs in New York, Boston, and Orlando, along with a sizable presence in Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue also caters to both business and leisure travelers.

Historically, airline mergers have had to meet several criteria, the most important of which is the maintenance of access to travel for passengers. This became less important as Congress recognized in the last round of mergers that there was too much service at airfares that were too low. With the mega-carriers now operating, profits have soared. However, what makes a merger with jetBlue difficult is the potential choke-hold that its hubs would provide to whomever buys the airline. Congress could require some kind of a fracturing of the company in order to support a merger. JFK, the crown jewel, would be the ultimate bargaining chip.

But here’s the rub: Too much of what jetBlue does out of JFK replicates too much of what other carriers already offer from their own East Coast coast hubs. An airline would need to add service from JFK that jetBlue doesn’t have, or service that supplements existing international service from that market.

Orlando is a leisure market with lower yields, and it doesn’t lend itself well to being a southern connecting hub such as Atlanta and Charlotte, though it does provide ready access to points south in the Caribbean and South America. But, many of those are also load yield, so the problem doesn’t immediately solve itself.

Mergers also create other huge challenges, not the least of which is  bringing together drastically different work cultures and product offerings. Nothing will clog up a merger like disgruntled employees that are also being swamped with new procedures, rules, and policies. The end result is billions of dollars lost and millions of unhappy customers.

I won’t say that jetBlue won’t or can’t get caught up in a merger, but it has to be accomplished wisely, with the realization that the end product will be drastically different. I do, however, think that a couple of the ultra-low-cost carriers will be forced to eventually merge, with Spirit and Frontier being the logical choices. They compete for a segmented market offering low fares that are hard to turn into profits. Customer service is less of a concern, but it still matters. I think Allegiant will continue to be a stand-alone carrier because its niche is different, and it sells the whole travel package as a vacation, not just a ticket from A to B.

The regionals are harder to predict. Their existence depends on capacity purchase agreements with the majors. However, even SkyWest, which was long considered “the place” to work, is having trouble recruiting and retaining pilots. It’s possible that, down the road, SkyWest and Republic may have to at least do the dance.

Consolidation is probably over for now. However, in such a dynamic industry, anything can happen. Change is constant, and it stands to reason that offers will at some point be made and entertained. Whether they will be consummated will depend on the circumstances in place at the time.—Chip Wright