Frontier Airlines placed a firm order with Airbus for nine A321-200s, its first such order of the larger model. The airline currently operates a fleet of 35 A319-100s and 20 A320-200s. The order brings Frontier’s Airbus order backlog to 89 including eighty A320neos. Frontier began its transition to an all-Airbus fleet when it took delivery of its first A319 in 2001.
We contacted the airline to ask about this order, which does seem odd. On the other hand, this order seems in line with American moving to A321s from A319s and jetBlue doing the same from A320s. Is the decision purely up gauging, we asked?
Frontier responded: “As you stated, the industry trend has been to up gauge to larger aircraft with one of the results being lower CASM which is a critical component of our ability to offer fares far below that of our competition. The larger aircraft also gives us greater scheduling flexibility allowing us to meet increased customer demand for our low fares on high density routes.”
We asked about new markets the A321 could enable, but Frontier would not get drawn into this. Clearly marketing strategy is carefully guarded. But, from our point of view, up gauging is more than CASM related. A larger aircraft with longer range allows for some new opportunities. No airline wants to enter a fare war – death by a thousand cuts still leads to death. Given the US airline industry discipline with controlled capacity growth and keeping fares high means the focus is now on revenue growth and less about the costs. After all, with industry average load factors at over 80% larger planes means more revenues. As an ULCC, Frontier is already one of the lowest cost operators.
We also asked about engine selection. On the Airbus PR, the image is of a factory color scheme A321, giving no clues about the aircraft. The airline is owned by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm based in Phoenix, Arizona. It is led by William (Bill) Franke, who has a long history in the airline business. He is also well known for ensuring every airline he invests in has V2500 engines on its Airbus aircraft. All Frontier’s Airbus have CFM engines now. So while Frontier said;”We are currently evaluating the engine options available and hope to have a selection made in the coming weeks“, we would not be surprised to see the A321s coming with V2500s. In this they would be in good company, there are airlines that use CFM on A320s (like Lufthansa) but select the V2500 for their A321s.