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Q&A: Frontier Airlines CEO discusses Alaska-Colorado connection

Scott McMurren
Frontier Airlines flies seasonal service to Anchorage and Fairbanks during the summer months. Frontier Airlines photo

Denver-based Frontier Airlines is one of several seasonal airlines that serves Anchorage during the summer. Frontier flies a single red-eye nonstop between Anchorage and Denver using an Airbus 320 with 168 seats. The carrier also flies five times each week between Fairbanks and Denver. As a "low fare carrier", Frontier's presence in both markets has reduced the fare to Denver by hundreds of dollars. Between Fairbanks and Denver, fares start at $358 roundtrip (traveling July 6-10). Anchorage-Denver is a little more: $386 roundtrip (July 10-24).

David Siegel, Frontier's CEO, is no stranger to the airline business. Before taking the reins at Frontier, Siegel was CEO at USAirways. Additionally, he's been CEO at Avis, Budget Rent a Car and Gate Gourmet, the world's largest independent airline catering and provisioning company. We asked him to share a little bit about bringing low fares to Alaska travelers--and his efforts to transform Frontier into an "Ultra Low Cost" airline.

Q: Frontier Airlines has a long history in Denver, stretching back more than 60 years. But this isn't the same "Frontier" that used to operate the venerable Convair 580 is it?

Siegel: Frontier Airlines, like many other carriers, has gone through its own "nine lives." The current company was "resurrected," flying 737s in 1994 after Continental pulled out of Denver. But Frontier succumbed to being the "third carrier" in Denver after United and Southwest. They filed for bankruptcy in 2009. And that's when Republic, a company that provides "feeder" service to major airlines, purchased the carrier.

Q: Frontier offers low-fare, summer-only service from Fairbanks and Anchorage to Denver. Do you have any plans to make the service year-round.

Siegel: I think Alaska is a seasonal (summer-only) market for us right now.

Q: How are your planes configured? I know they're "all coach," but some seats are better than others, right?

Siegel: Yes, we have three levels of seating: Standard (30-inch pitch), Select (30- to 31-inch pitch) and Stretch (36- to 38-inch pitch). The seats correspond to the "fare bundles" we offer at FlyFrontier.com: Economy, Classic and Classic Plus. When travelers book the "Classic" bundle, for example, they get two free checked bags, advance "Select" seat assignments with an option to upgrade to "Stretch" for as little as $5 per segment -- and other extras.

Q: When you came on board with Frontier in January of 2012, you mentioned you'd like for Frontier to become an "ultra low cost carrier." That sounds like Ryanair, Spirit or Allegiant. Are travelers ready for this "great unbundling?"

Siegel: We're a low-cost airline today. We want to be ultra-low-cost. There are several components to that strategy, including adding capacity on the planes with new, slimmer seats. There's also an effort to increase the number of people who buy directly from the FlyFrontier.com website. These structural changes, plus some technological upgrades, will allow us to offer a low base fare. Then, we will charge travelers for the other services they use -- but not for the services they don't use.

Right now, our fares are lowest in the Denver market. Frontier is the airline that brought low fares to Denver.  I think there's a lesson here for Alaska travelers: If you want more competitive fares, then you need to fly the competing airline, no matter the price difference. Look at JetBlue and Seattle, for example. If JetBlue pulls out of the Anchorage-Seattle market, fares will rise and it will be a long time before another airline will enter that market.

Q: Recently, Frontier announced it would charge travelers for carry-on bags. The charge doesn't apply if you purchase your tickets at FlyFrontier.com, but isn't that a little harsh?

Siegel: We've noticed one of the biggest problems when boarding the aircraft is that the overhead bins fill up and more bags have to be "gate checked". Our conclusion is that some travelers are "gaming the system" to avoid paying for checked luggage. This move is really designed to close that loophole and free up some overhead space for our best customers.

People are used to getting stuff for free. But the reality is that travelers are better off with the "a la carte" pricing where you have the option to pay for specific amenities. It's our goal to offer a lower base fare, then charge for those amenities--and increase the "ancillary revenue" with those sales.

Q: Do you have other partner airlines? Are you part of an alliance of airlines like United or Delta?

Siegel: We have loose partnerships with Great Lakes Aviation, which provides service to some of our smaller communities. And we have a code-share arrangement with Icelandair, which flies from Denver to Iceland and on to Europe. But in the near term, we're focusing on the technological and structural changes to get to that "ultra low cost" statues.

Frontier's flights from Fairbanks to Denver operate through Sept. 7, 2013. From Anchorage, the last flight south is on Sept. 16, 2013.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.