Frontier Airlines has done an exceptional job in recent years of increasing its revenue from ancillary fees, including baggage.
But a recent, unseemly scene I experienced while boarding a Frontier flight now has me wondering: At what cost?
Like other ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs), Frontier sells inexpensive tickets a la carte, then drives up revenue through aggressive fees for carry-on bags, except personal items small enough to fit under a seat; checked bags; and seat assignments. It's the very core of Frontier's business model.
According to a September report from the consulting firm Ideaworks, Frontier captured 54.9% of its 2021 revenue from ancillary items, second highest in the world behind Hungary-based Wizz Air and slightly ahead of third-place finisher Spirit.
During the third quarter of last year, Frontier reported $78 in average ancillary revenue per passenger, up 38% from the third quarter in prepandemic 2019. By comparison, its average airfare per passenger was $58.
By the end of this year, Frontier hopes to grow that ancillary figure to $85.
Not all of that 38% increase was a result of traditional ancillary items. The number can also include revenue from other items, such as co-branded credit cards.
Still, the figure is broadly suggestive of the price hikes Frontier has implemented on ancillaries, including carry-on bags. For example, I spent $39 on a carry-on for a Frontier flight in late 2019; these days, the carrier is often charging $53, and sometimes more.
To be clear, I've never been a critic of the ULCC model. The presence of cheap ULCC base fares on a specific route often brings down prices at competing airlines.
Nevertheless, my December experience flying Frontier between Denver and Pittsburgh has made me think that its ever-growing reliance on bag fees compared to base fares has gone too far, tempting more budget flyers to test adherence to the rules at the gate, compelling the airline to crack down in a manner that violates practically every precept of customer service. When so much money is at stake, shareholders are going to expect strict enforcement.
One-by-one on my flight from Denver, as passengers who hadn't booked a carry-on reached the boarding gate, the agent instructed them to test if their personal items fit in the carrier's measuring bin. If not, the agents warned repeatedly over the intercom, they'd have to pay a $99 at-the-gate carry-on fee.
What followed was near chaos. Some flyers, already upset after a three-hour delay, tried to ignore the agents. This led to yelling by the agents, including an occasion in which an agent hollered to her counterpart not to allow an approaching passenger to board.
Soon thereafter, as the boarding line inched forward amid all the bag measuring and conflict, I turned to notice a second line of maybe six or seven people at the check-in desk who were waiting to pay the usurious $99 gate-check charge.
On my flight from Pittsburgh a few days later, a more sympathetic gate agent managed to find the middle ground between enforcing Frontier's carry-on policy and expressing concern for passengers. She did so by requiring bag-size checks while also encouraging customers to rearrange the items in their bag if needed. Repeatedly, she said that her true goal was to avoid charging that $99.
No doubt, I'd dread going to work if I were a Frontier gate agent.
Instead, as a Frontier customer and an industry observer, I found that situation in Denver unsettling. And I fear that such a scene will only become more common if bag fees at Frontier continue to increase.