Peter Blake

Will Frontier become the Wal-Mart of the skies?

My highest priority, when I absolutely positively must fly, is choosing the airline most likely to let me walk away from the landing.

After that, price matters, and I’m as economy-minded — okay, cheap — as the next passenger.

But an occasional amenity is welcome. Full meals are long gone unless you’re flying first-class, but I like a free plastic cup of Bloody Mary mix, maybe even a munchie. And certainly room for my knees.

That’s why a headline in the Wall Street Journal last week made me depressed: “At Frontier, Prepare for Less Leg Room,”

The story told of the pending sale of our hometown airline by Republic Airways Holdings to Indigo Partners of Phoenix for $36 million in cash and $109 million in assumed debt. Indigo is headed by Bill Franke, the guy who — for better or worse — made Spirit Airlines what it is today.

And he’s promising (threatening?) to do the same thing to Frontier: Getting rid of first class, packing more seats onto planes, flying more hours every day and trapping the unwary by piling on extra fees while cutting basic fares.

I was going to say it sounds like the Wal-Martization of Frontier, but that would probably be unfair to Wal-Mart.

icon_op_edBesides, it smacks of the anti-Wal-Mart snobbery so typical of towns like Boulder and neighborhoods like east Denver, where residents protest the construction of its stores. They claim it’s because Wal-Mart doesn’t pay employees enough, but more likely it’s because they’re afraid its low prices will attract poor people in search of bargains into the area, people who can’t afford Whole Foods or Nordstrom.

And we know what those people are supposed to look like, thanks to those gross pictures that circulate endlessly around the Web.

So if Frontier really ends up like Wal-Mart, that would be tolerable. But it may not be easy. It will have to keep the planes full.

Unhappily, the days are long past when the airlines were run by the entrepreneurs who put them together: C. R. Smith of American, Bob Six of Continental, Juan Trippe of Pan Am, Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern — people who loved flying, believed in air travel, personally directed its growth and were even known and admired by their employees.

The last airline entrepreneur is Herb Kelleher, 82, who still hangs around Southwest although he’s surrendered all his management jobs. (Richard Branson is still around but he has his finger in so many pies he hardly has time for his Virgin Group of airlines.)

Inevitably, industries age and times change. Now airlines are run by bean counters, the private equity firms to whom airlines are no different and no more romantic than whatever department stores, hotel chains, restaurants, retail outlets and factories they also run. All that matters is the bottom line.

Spirit Airlines is an acquired taste, loved by those few travelers who can travel without bags, pack their own water and know that they must do everything on line ahead of time, not at the counter or gate. But it is among the lowest ranked in traveler surveys.

My son flew Spirit from Dallas to Portland, Ore., a couple of months ago. The attendants announced the front restroom was broken and out of commission. He returned to Texas three days later and he knew it was the same airplane — because the same restroom was still broken. Unless they paid extra, the passengers had nothing to eat but their knees, which the limited legroom put within reach of their mouths.

The flight back was delayed, and passengers were grumpy. But the employees weren’t happy either. One attendant chastised the passengers, noting they only have to put up with the problems on one trip while they have to put up with the problems every day.

Frontier has been working in the direction of “ultra low-cost carriers” for a while. For instance, if you want a free checked bag and even free coffee you better have paid the “classic” fare, not the “economy.”

Franke resigned from the Spirit board before making the Frontier deal. The two airlines have a very small overlap on routes.

Spirit’s Web site tells us “personal items” are free but carry-on bags cost from $25 (if noted during online booking) up to $100 (if proclaimed at the gate). Checked bags range from $20 to $100. Choosing your own seat costs up to $50 more than if you let the airline choose the seat, which is free. You can see you’d better do your planning well in advance.

On ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit, Allegiant and the future Frontier, flight attendants are making sales, not providing free service. It might take a different personality type.

It’s interesting to note that one of the original low-cost airlines, Southwest, still lets you check up to two checked bags for free and provides free snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. Of course it charges more for basic fares than the ultra-low-cost lines.

The Frontier deal won’t be finalized until Franke reaches an agreement with its flight attendants and pilots, who were promised an equity stake in Frontier two years ago in return for surrendering some benefits.

So good luck to the new Frontier. Even if you might not want to fly on it, it will still help keep the competition’s prices down.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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