Frontier Airlines will designate Miami Airport as an official base beginning in March. But as the ultralow-cost carrier grows in South Florida, one key to its success will be training price-conscious flyers to look beyond Fort Lauderdale, the region’s longtime discount hub.

“We see this as an opportunity,” Frontier chief commercial officer Daniel Shurz said. “We’ve been taking advantage of this opportunity. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.”

Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports are just 29 miles apart, but they cater to very different types of travelers. According to the flight data analytics company OAG, 73% of outbound seats offered from Fort Lauderdale in 2019 were on low-cost carriers compared with just 3% from Miami. 

Miami serves as a hub for American Airlines and hosts legacy carriers from around the Western Hemisphere and the world. Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale is a focus city for JetBlue, is the home of Spirit and hosts sizeable operations by Southwest and Allegiant.

Various factors explain the difference between the airports. Miami-Dade County is more of an economic center than Fort Lauderdale’s Broward County, which helps explain the airport’s appeal to business travelers. Conversely, airport fees at Fort Lauderdale are much lower than at Miami, a key consideration, especially for cost-conscious discount carriers.

In the fiscal year ended in September, airlines’ cost per enplaned passenger (CPE) was $6.89 at Fort Lauderdale, compared with Miami’s current CPE of $18.92, according to the airports.

In addition, Fort Lauderdale’s long-standing status as the area’s home for low-cost air service has become self-perpetuating as discount airfare shoppers  --  both area residents and regular visitors  --  have learned to look there first.

Bucking the norm, Frontier entered Miami in December 2014, though its present buildup began in the past year. Last winter, Frontier flew 32 weekly flights from Miami, a number that has grown to 82. 

The carrier’s summer 2020 schedule has 119 weekly Miami flights to 22 destinations, including eight routes that Frontier unveiled last month. Among them are its first three international destinations: Guatemala City; San Salvador, El Salvador; and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Each international route targets the family visitation market rather than Frontier’s traditional emphasis on vacation travelers, Shurz said. 

He readily acknowledges that Frontier must overcome the perception that the cheap flights in South Florida are out of Fort Lauderdale, but he said, “As customers fly us, word of mouth will build up.” 

Overcoming that perception, he said, is likely to be easier with the inbound market, where there are more new flyers who don’t by default look to Fort Lauderdale for discount flights into South Florida.

But being all but alone in Miami among low-cost airlines also offers advantages. Frontier’s Miami routes will typically compete only with hub carrier American and perhaps a second legacy carrier from one of that airline’s hubs or focus cities. 

That gives Frontier a more unique offering in Miami than it would have going against Spirit, JetBlue and Southwest in Fort Lauderdale. 

Shurz said he doesn’t expect to gain a major price premium in Miami as a result of the move, though a $5 increase might be possible on some routes. After all, Frontier still must stay competitive with fares its discount competitors are offering out of Fort Lauderdale. 

Yet he does expect higher load factors. The carrier especially sees potential for Miami in the Latin America market, since Miami-Dade has a much larger population of Latinos than Broward County.

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