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Frontier confident in Delaware return, future

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Frontier Airlines, Delaware River & Bay Authority, and local tourism officials cut a ribbon on the new air service Thursday afternoon. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

NEW CASTLE – A February snowstorm couldn’t dash the excitement around Frontier Airlines’ return to the Wilmington-New Castle Airport on Thursday, as more than 100 passengers made the first commercial flight from Delaware in more than five years.

“When I started at the DRBA four years ago, the one question that everybody asked me was “When are you bringing air service back to the Wilmington Airport?” Thomas Cook, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, the operator of the airport, said at a Thursday press conference. “Starting today, citizens of New Castle County and across the region are now able to do more than just drive past this airport each day. Quality, affordable air service has returned to our community.”

Frontier first announced its return to Delaware last year before the pandemic struck and twice pushed back its decision to start three-times-a-week service to Orlando. Like all airlines, Frontier has been battered by a precipitous fall in air passenger travel through the pandemic, as interstate and international quarantines discouraged travel. Most companies canceled in-person events and meetings out of caution and leisure travel was severely hampered by public health restrictions.

According to federal transportation data, Frontier saw about 68.5% of its seats filled through the first 10 months of 2020, compared to an annual total of nearly 89% in 2019. The airline flew about 73,300 flights through October of last year, or roughly 35% fewer than the first 10 months of 2019 when it flew about 113,300.

Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of commercial operations for Frontier, said that the airline was encouraged that domestic leisure travel has fared comparatively well through the pandemic. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Despite the difficult year, Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of commercial operations for Frontier, said Thursday that the airline was encouraged that domestic leisure travel – which represents nearly all of its passengers – has fared comparatively well through the pandemic compared to international or business travel. With vaccinations increasing nationwide and people more comfortable with mask-wearing protocols, Shurz said that Frontier expects to return to 2019 capacity levels as early as March.

“The demand is still out there,” he told Delaware Business Times. “We have the right customer mix and the lowest cost in the U.S. industry, so we think we’re going to recover faster than the industry on the whole.”

The fact that Wilmington-New Castle Airport’s first service destination is Orlando likely also helped convince the airline to move ahead with its plans to restart service here, Shurz said.

“We are being more cautious about our return to big city markets because it is happening more slowly for obvious reasons,” he noted.

Florida remains one of the most sought-after destinations and demand for flights there has picked up across Frontier’s system in the last few months.

“Just look at the crowd today,” Shurz said, pointing to the ebullient crowd of more than 140 passengers waiting for the inaugural Thursday afternoon flight, a mix of older couples and young families with children wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

The first flight south was roughly 75% full, despite the impact of the lingering pandemic. Last year, Shurz had said that the airline anticipated load capacity around 85% for renewed service out of Delaware after seeing around 80% when Frontier last flew out of the state in 2015.

While there may be a greater risk of fewer passengers for a flight out of New Castle, service to such smaller airports also carry significant cost efficiencies for Frontier, Shurz noted. That includes less time spent waiting for runways to become available, and in turn less fuel wasted while waiting, as well as less competition for flights.

Delaware is not alone in Frontier’s expansion plans amid the pandemic, as it is launching new services from airports in California, Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands this month, Shurz said. But the New Castle Airport is by far the smallest airport in the batch to be added to the Frontier system.

Shurz said the decision to move forward with the plans delayed for more than six months by the pandemic was due to Frontier’s confidence in the market. It is already the second largest airline in terms of the number of planes flying out of Philadelphia International Airport, and it maintains service at the smaller Trenton-Mercer Airport in New Jersey as well.

“The longer we’ve been in the region, the more we understand what works,” he said. “Florida is the biggest destination and Orlando is the biggest destination in Florida. If this works, then we’ve got a playbook of what the next markets might be.”

He indicated that other Florida destinations would likely follow if the airline saw success with the New Castle-Orlando service.

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