News » Mountain News

Mountain News

Discount airline likely to service resorts



By Allen Best

DENVER, Colo. – The cost of flying between Denver and the various resorts of Colorado, but even Jackson Hole and Red Lodge, could become cheaper next year.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines, a discount carrier known for its marketing theme that features talking bears, lynx and other critters, is getting 10 new regional airplanes at a cost of roughly $26 million each. Built by Bombardier, the 74-passenger turboprop planes can fly distances of 650 to 700 miles.

The planes are also far more energy efficient than similar-sized planes. That, say analysts, will allow Frontier a greater margin to reduce fares while still remaining profitable.

“When you draw a 650- to 700-mile circle around Denver, what we see is a lot of opportunity, but we didn’t necessarily have the right aircraft,” Frontier chief executive Jeff Potter told The Denver Post. “It gives us the flexibility to serve some of the Colorado mountain destinations that we couldn’t otherwise do,” he added.

“It’s very exciting news, no matter how you slice it,” says Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and an authority on airlines. He noted that United Airlines, which is the lone provider of Denver-Aspen shuttles, this week was offering a walk-up fare of $430 for that flight. The walk-up fare for a Denver-Fort Lauderdale flight on Frontier was $139.

While lower fares are not guaranteed, Tomcich indicated they are likely. “There’s plenty of margin available,” he told Mountain Town News.

Also seeing a margin for lower fares is Kent Myers, of Airplanners Inc., a firm that creates flight programs for several resort markets in the West. “It will make United stand up and take notice,” he said.

Frontier has identified 18 potential airports it could fly into, but has not named them. Myers expects Aspen, Vail, Jackson Hole and Steamboat to make the cut, but is less sure about smaller markets such as Crested Butte and Telluride. Other resort markets mentioned in news accounts include Durango and Billings, Mont., which is an hour away from the ski resort of Red Lodge.

Many resort areas in the Rockies have not had more than one airline offering shuttles to Denver since Continental Airlines ended shuttles to Denver in 1994. Among those most severely affected was Aspen, which overnight lost 35 per cent of its available incoming seats. Aspen still hasn’t regained its pre-1994 levels, says Tomcich.

Technology is the key to the Frontier’s initiative. The new turboprop planes use less fuel than similar-sized regional jets, but can match them in speed. That gives them a per-seat costs that are very, very low. Called the Q-400, the Bombardier planes also have a good lift-to-weight ratio, allowing them to work out of airports that are more boxed in by mountains, such as is the case at the airport at Aspen.