Robert Silk
Robert Silk

There's no secret about the business model that has sustained and grown domestic, ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs) Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant. They keep costs down and prices low. It's a formula that has enabled the ULCCs to win market share from legacy competitors and to develop a new demographic of family flyers who previously would have either stayed home or journeyed by car.

But with the ULCC sector having matured to more than 9% of the domestic airline market in 2018 in terms of miles flown by paying passengers, the carriers have moved, in my opinion, beyond adolescence and into something akin to early adulthood.

And just like healthy young adults of the human variety, the ULCCs appear to be itching to show the world that they have expanded their horizons.
In recent weeks, Spirit and Frontier, which are the two largest U.S. ULCCs, rolled out marketing campaigns that steer clear of pitches about affordability.

Frontier went first, introducing its Green Class campaign in late August. Green Class isn't actually a new product but is Frontier's tongue-in-cheek approach to emphasizing that it is the most fuel-efficient U.S. airline, a position enabled by both to its young fleet, which includes more than 40 new-generation A320Neo aircraft, and to a business model that features dense seating configurations.

Spirit followed just a couple weeks later with a campaign asking the airline industry to discard pitch, or the space between rows, as its primary metric for passenger comfort. The carrier's "ditch the pitch" suggestion coincided with its unveiling of seats that offer more padding, full tray tables and curved seatbacks.

In place of pitch, Spirit is advocating for a metric it dubs "usable legroom," which it defines as the distance from the middle point of a passenger's seat cushion to the farthest point on the back of the seat in front. Spirit says its new curved seatbacks offer two inches more "usable legroom" than its existing seats.

The point isn't really whether or not you buy the cases Frontier and Spirit are making -- and I do, though with a sizable grain of salt. More significant to me is that they are making these types of arguments at all, rather than marketing to customers exclusively on a message of price.

In contrast, consider Spirit's approach in the decade after it switched to the ULCC model in 2006. The carrier was known for being indifferent, even brazen, about customer service. But Spirit sharply changed course in 2016 after Bob Fornaro replaced Ben Baldanza as CEO.

In his three years running Spirit, Fornaro delivered on better operational and service metrics. In 2018, Spirit recorded an on-time percentage of 84.5%, up from 69% in 2015. Spirit has also transformed into an industry leader in baggage handling.

Though Allegiant hasn't rolled out a catchy marketing campaign of its own in recent weeks, it, too, has made substantial operational improvements, fueled in part by the 2018 retirement of its aging McDonnell Douglas MD-80 fleet. Notably, Allegiant had just 18 controllable cancellations in the second quarter of this year, compared with 449 and 156, respectively, during the same periods in 2017 and 2018.

Ultimately, ULCCs will continue to draw customers due to their cheap ticket prices. I'm all for that; providing choice to the market is always good for consumers. But I'm also glad these carriers are working to broaden their reach, whether it be by offering an improved in-flight product or by touting a carbon footprint that is the envy of the industry.

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