A New Frontier?

by Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer

I recently suggested that JetBlue might offer some great opportunities for pilots who can’t or don’t want to go to one of the Big 4 airlines right now. While JetBlue could be great, it’s basing locations might not be for everyone. Since location is my #1 criteria for selecting an airline to work for, I want to suggest another unique opportunity for pilots who want to live in other areas. Namely: we’re going to take a look at Frontier Airlines.

Before we get going, let me set the stage for this discussion. So there I was…

…enjoying the annual Sun-‘n-Fun airshow extravaganza as I wandered through the four hangers packed with vendor displays. I got a great deal on some LED nav lights for my C-170A at the Aircraft Spruce booth. I did my usual drooling over everything at Dynon Avionics, still impressed that their equipment matches or exceeds the best that Garmin, Avidyne, and others have to offer at 1/4 to 1/3 the price. I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes when the rep at uAvionix showed me their “zero install” ADS-B Out solution that will be available for certified aircraft later this year. (If you own an airplane, you’re looking at an optimistic minimum of $5,000 to equip your plane with a new ADS-B Out transponder required to fly in most controlled airspace starting on 1 January, 2020. The uAvionix solution will make you compliant with the new requirements for significantly less. The installation will take less time than doing the logbook entry.)

As I walked around, I noticed that every regional airline had a booth. No surprise…given the current pilot shortage, they need to do everything they can to recruit. What did surprise me though was when I noticed that the backdrop at the Silver Airways display had a giant Frontier Airlines A321 on it. I couldn’t help asking them what the deal was, and what I found was impressive.

Silver has struck a deal with Frontier on a flow-through program that is unprecedented in our industry.

Normally, I’m very hesitant about flow-through programs. They’re usually “seniority-based,” meaning that you have to wait for every other pilot at your company to get the chance to flow-through to the bigger airline before you get your shot. If you’re a high-time military pilot, this is a terrible deal. You can get hired by the associated major airline without participating in the flow-through program, but if your company has a seniority-based program, it means that spots you would have been qualified for will get filled-up by flow-throughs.

The worst thing with many flow-through programs is that they don’t guarantee you anything more than an interview. You might spend years waiting in line only to get a big, fat TBNT. (Thanks, but no thanks.) A seniority-based flow-through program that won’t guarantee anything more concrete than an interview is about as much good to me as when my kids tell me, “I promise I’ll be good tomorrow if you buy me this candy today.” (Far-From-Pro tip: don’t buy the candy!)

(The two exceptions here are Horizon/Alaska, and American. Alaska has a contract guaranteeing that at least 30% of their pilots come from Horizon. If I wanted to work at Alaska, I’d absolutely put in an application at Horizon as well…no matter how competitive I might be as an Alaska direct-hire. American, on the other hand, seems to be relying on its flow-through programs pretty heavily. I’ve talked to a few American pilots, and, anecdotally, they’re getting about 50% of their new-hire pilots from flow-through programs. That’s a pretty impressive ratio and a lot of pilots. If American was my #1 choice, I’d absolutely apply to any of the regionals that have a flow-through program with them.)

The Silver/Frontier program is different. When you interview at Silver Airways, you’re also interviewing at Frontier Airlines. Two birds, one stone. If you get hired, you start flying for Silver to build time. Once you hit 2,500 hours total time, you’re guaranteed a spot in one of the next three training classes at Frontier. No seniority, no caveats like “pending availability,” or other games. Not everyone would want to sign on with a regional airline flying turboprops, worried that you might get “stuck” there for a long time. At Silver, you know from the moment you’re hired that at 2,500 hours you get to move on. You can’t beat that kind of assurance right now. It’s outstanding.

So, what about Silver? Is it a good deal? In my opinion, yes.

It isn’t the most glamorous regional airline job. They fly twin-turboprop Saab 430s. These are the same aircraft that used to fly for Mesaba. No APU, not especially long-range, not many seats. However, it is twin-turbine Part 121 flying. This will even get better soon. The people at the Silver booth were very excited to tell me that they’re replacing all their aircraft with brand-new ATR 42-600s. These are larger, nicer twin turboprops. The avionics are pretty advanced…the Silver reps compared them to what you get on the Airbus A320 family. Those aircraft will be more enjoyable to fly than the Saabs, not that there’s anything wrong with those either.

Silver is a Florida airline, so if you live in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale it’s perfect. If you don’t live here let me share a secret: this area is amazing and you could do a lot worse than living here for a year or two! Since the Saabs are fairly short-range aircraft, you end up doing a lot of shorter hops. The smaller scope of the airline means that there’s a lot of opportunities to sleep at home most nights. The reps at Sun-‘n-Fun said that they have a few former military pilots who have stayed with the company rather than moving on to a major, even though they could probably get hired at one. They aren’t making amazing money, but they are enjoying the flying and they don’t spend any nights away from their families. Most regional airlines will have you commuting to places like Detroit, Chicago, or New York for months or years…with 3-5 day trips. You could do a lot worse than the lifestyle that Silver offers.

I asked the reps how long it takes to upgrade to Captain at Silver and they said you should expect to do it the moment you hit the 1,000 hour Part 121 minimums. (See an explanation of that rule, and a useful caveat for some military pilots, in my article in this issue of TPNQ.) This is good news because if you’re working at a regional airline you might as well upgrade ASAP to start making better money and build your PIC time.

So, Silver sounds like a pretty good deal as far as regionals go. The best part of it is knowing from Day 1 that you’ll only be there until you hit 2,500 hours. What about the second half of this deal? Why would you want to work at Frontier?

I grew up in Colorado and used to be a huge fan of Frontier. They were unique, they had giant animals painted on their airplanes, the staff and crews were friendly…the whole company had latent enthusiasm and friendliness along the lines of Southwest. Sadly, Frontier got bought in 2013 by a parent company who decided to go all-in with the ultra-low-cost airline model, and their service has since gone downhill. (I recently confirmed this by flying TPA-DEN for my side-hustle. More about that story another time.) Sadly, Frontier set their pilot pay rates according to that same model and they’re appalling. Many 3rd-Year FOs at Delta make more than the highest-paid Captain at Frontier. The company’s management should be embarrassed by that fact. For a long time, it appeared that that management was clueless, but they may have finally come around. After three years of contract negotiations that went as close to a strike as a gets, Frontier’s pilots have finally reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) on a new contract.

Very convincing Emet. Frontier sounds like a terrible company. Why are you trying to sell me on it again?

The way I see it, things at Frontier can only get better from here. The worldwide pilot supply is so competitive now that Frontier will run out of people to operate their aircraft unless they improve things. Any criticism you could point at Frontier could probably also apply to Spirit Airlines. They’re all-Airbus, ultra-low-cost carrier known for serving passengers who start brawls at the gate when they’re unhappy. If there is any airline in our country so focused on cutting costs that they’d refuse to give their pilots a decent contract, I’d think it would be Spirit. Surprisingly though, they recently concluded negotiations for a contract that offers downright decent pay, especially for such a…uh…frugal…carrier. With a top rate of $238/hr, a senior Captain at Spirit is potentially only making about $20,000 less per year than his or her peers at Southwest and Alaska. If you can’t live an amazing life with that kind of salary, you’re just doing it wrong.

Granted, pay rates are not the most important thing in an airline pilot contract. Work rules, scope, and other things matter as much as pay, if not more. Spirit’s new contract appears to have some better work rules overall, with some areas still lacking. I’d expect the same for Frontier.

I haven’t seen any confirmed details about Frontier’s new contract. However, I came across some leaked information that makes me believe it is a pretty decent contract. The bottom line in these negotiations is: Frontier Airlines will have to match or exceed Spirit’s pay rates and work rules if they want to have any hope of staffing their airline. It’s not a question of whether that will happen, only a question of when.

Frontier may not seem like an ideal place to start working right now, but it will get better. Even now, it isn’t all doom and gloom. While I was at the Silver booth at Sun-‘n-Fun, a Frontier chief pilot wandered up to check on his Silver friends. (He looked like a baby to me, but maybe that’s just because my kids are constantly reminding me how old I am at 38.) He enjoys working for Frontier. He’s based in Florida and loves living down here. He’s enthusiastic about his company and where it’s going. He had faith that he’ll get a better contract soon.

Speaking of Frontier’s future, another reason that I think things there have the potential to be good is that their parent company is investing heavily in them. They have orders for more than 200 A320/321neo jets. This order will triple the size of the airline. It will also give Frontier aircraft with enough range to reach Central or South America, Hawaii, and even Europe if they wanted to try. With a fleet of that many new, efficient aircraft, the possibilities are impressive. However, there is simply zero chance that Frontier will be able to effectively triple the size of their pilot force to staff these aircraft without significantly improving their contract. Pilots would do Frontier Airlines Touch & Gos and the company’s recruiting and training costs would eat them alive. If they try to operate like an ultra-miserly regional flying A321neos they’ll just plain fail. (That’s great news for us pilots!)

If I wanted to live in Denver, Las Vegas, or Orlando, then Frontier would be near the top of my list. Sure, you can work for United or Southwest in Denver, but that’s a popular base for both airlines and you’d have to be more senior to get there. Denver is headquarters for Frontier and will always have spots. Your only other options for Vegas are Southwest (probably another fairly senior hub) and Allegiant (a whole different animal that might get its own post someday.) Orlando has JetBlue as an option, but none of the other majors have a strong base there.

If I wanted to live in one of those hubs, then I’d want to get to the company before pilots start flooding in to triple the size of the airline. The pay rates and work rules will improve when Frontier gets a new contract. Someone starting at Frontier in the near future will see his or her relative seniority skyrocket in a company set for that kind of growth. That’s a wave I’d be happy to ride!

So, what if you read this and said to yourself “I want to settle down in Denver anyway,” and started working at Frontier only to find that you don’t really like it? Don’t worry…just like everywhere else in our industry, you’re never more than 2-weeks notice from being a free agent. Worst case, you could treat employment at Frontier like you’re doing a regional airline touch & go. You’ll just be flying full-sized A320s instead of the CRJ200 “Barbie Jet” (as my flight attendants love to call it.) If you want to make some real money and live a life of adventure, upgrade ASAP at Frontier and log a few hundred hours of PIC time. Then, you’ll have access to your choice of jobs in China or elsewhere in Asia where a pilot with 500 PIC hours in an A320 can make $300K/yr, plus other amazing benefits. Or, just apply to one of the major US airlines. You won’t fail an interview by saying, 

“I liked working at Frontier and living in Denver. However, I decided I don’t love the ultra-low-cost business model. I always did my best, but I want to be able to represent a brand associated with a higher-quality passenger experience. I also decided I’d like to do some serious international flying during my career.” 

Spending a year or two at Frontier opens up a world of possibilities for you.

As I write this, I’m a little disappointed that I can’t find a website detailing the agreement between Silver and Frontier. I’d make sure I saw everything I’d outlined, in writing, before agreeing to work there (I did get these details directly from Silver reps at their booth and I believe them to be valid.) The best I can give you for now is their pilot recruiting page. We’ll update this post if we get a better place to send you.

In a fact that further strengthens Frontier’s position in my mind, Silver isn’t the only airline with a flow-through program like this with Frontier. Trans States Airlines (TSA) also has a flow-through program. Although it doesn’t sound quite as concrete as Silver’s program, TSA’s flow-through agreement is potentially a good deal as well. (I’m waiting to hear back from them.) The tag line both in this picture here and the press release says, “as little as two years.” It’s important for regional airlines to realize that they aren’t most pilots’ forever home, and it appears that TSA does. Instead of doing what they can to trap people, it looks as if TSA is joining Silver to offer a more concrete path forward.

You may be wondering about 2,500 hours vs 2 years. What is better? Well, under current rules many pilots will need at least 1,500 hours to start working at either company. At Silver, you only need 1,000 more hours before you can move on. Given the short legs that they fly, you’re probably looking at 18-24 months to accumulate those 1,000 hours. So, in effect, these two programs are probably saying the same thing…if TSA’s program also has you interviewed and hired by Frontier right up front.

If you don’t want to live in Florida, TSA has a lot of other options that may work better for you. Denver, St Louis, Chicago, and Raleigh all sound okay to me. (Also, Florida is awesome and if you can’t bear to spend a year or two here, you may need to get your head checked.)

Whether you choose TSA or Silver, ending up at Frontier puts you in a position with a lot of potentials. Life there will get a lot better when they get a new contract, and you can live in Colorado (possibly my top choice, after Florida) or some other great domiciles. They’re set for rapid growth and getting on the front of that seniority wave will make for an amazing career, because, as I’ve said before, Seniority is Everything! Even if you don’t want to stay at Frontier forever, it’ll set you up well for whatever’s next. You can treat it like a regional touch & go, but you’ll be flying A320s on a soon-to-be-much-better pay scale.

Frontier is definitely an option worth looking at right now.

As much as I’d like to leave things here, I can’t pass up an opportunity to suggest an interesting possibility. The three legacy airlines (and Southwest) are powerhouses in the United States. They can put a lot of weight toward fighting an opponent in any given market. (see: Delta vs Alaska in Seattle right now.) In fact, they have so much power that it would be ridiculous to think that an upstart airline could compete directly against them at all in many markets.

Maybe it’s just the former special operations pilot in me, but I see this as a significant opportunity for our country’s smaller carriers. It’s a pattern I see over and over again as I look throughout history.

Knowing they can’t realistically compete against a major airline in its main market, the smaller carriers are bypassing those markets completely. By focusing on smaller airports like Las Vegas, St Petersburg, Fort Walton Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, these carriers get to poach passengers from the larger airlines without having to compete directly. The passengers get more convenient airports and more direct flights at a lower cost. It’s classic unconventional warfare and I hate to admit that it seems to be working well for them.

We see this in recent business history as well. Apple of the 80s and early 90s couldn’t possibly compete with IBM PC Clones and Microsoft Windows. They certainly didn’t have the know-how or clout to take on the entire music recording industry. After languishing for a decade(s?) they finally came up with the iPod…and revolutionized the music industry forever. Then, the iPhone ushered in a completely new era of computing. Microsoft was completely incapable of matching that pivot and got decimated. Now, Apple makes billions (trillions?) from mobile devices and they also have very popular notebook computers. Microsoft made the Zune, for a while. It still makes the Surface. How many of those do you see in the wild for every MacBook these days?

Similarly, Google realized that they couldn’t compete directly with Microsoft for operating systems (Windows) or enterprise productivity software (MS Office.) So, they made a name with search and giving away awesome email service for free. Microsoft failed to adapt (Bing and Outlook anyone?) and has languished. Now, Google is gaining market share with their productivity suite and they’re pushing hard against Microsoft with their Chrome operating system in the education market and G Suite for enterprise customers.

If the smaller carriers in the US can continue to compete asymmetrically, I see them having a strong potential to grow. If the major carriers move too slowly (like Microsoft in both of our examples above,) they’ll start to suffer by losing market share. As a Delta guy, that concerns me. If I wanted to join Frontier and settle down in Denver, I’d be jumping for joy.

I feel like this could easily go a step further. Individually, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, and maybe Alaska and JetBlue are all small-time compared to the Big 4. However, if they were to combine forces they could potentially amplify the effects of this asymmetric warfare strategy. They could form a code sharing alliance to compete with SkyTeam, OneWorld, and the Star Alliance. Alaska and Virgin merged last year and I could see that going a few steps further. I think we could end up with a Big 5 or Big 6 forced to out-innovate each other, instead of a Big 4 and a kids’ table. This would definitely be good news for customers, and it could mean good things for pilot contracts as well.

There’s one caveat here that the ultra-low-cost model employed by Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, and some others cannot compete directly with the 3 legacy carriers. I flew a lot on RyanAir and EasyJet in Europe and I flew on Frontier recently. Although the individual crew members generally seem to do their best, I don’t feel uncharitable saying that the overall travel experience on these carriers is truly miserable.

Delta is proud of the fact that people pay a premium to fly on us, on the same routes as all these other carriers, because the experience is so much better on average. There will always be customers who choose to shop at Publix because it’s a nice experience, even if it’s more expensive…and there will always be customers who shop at Walmart (or even Dollar General) because their circumstances dictate optimizing cost over comfort. This doesn’t make one better than the other, it just means that they’re different.

This is good in some ways because it means many different companies can coexist in relative peace. It’s good in other ways because it will force the lower-cost carriers to improve service at the margins. This is what has driven JetBlue to develop what some authorities consider the best business class product in the domestic United States. (Unfortunately, this has also produced a rash of Basic Economy fare options and embarrassingly terrible PaxEx on B737MAXs at some legacy carriers.)

My hope is that if some of these smaller carriers were to band together and launch a large-scale asymmetric offensive, the end result for our industry would trend closer to jetBlue’s Mint than Basic Economy sardine cans.

If you’re interested in being a leader in that effort, Frontier is going to need a lot of new pilots over the next few years. With a competitive contract, some great bases, and 200 new aircraft on order, they could be a fantastic company to join. If you care at all about seniority, there will never be a better time to sign up.

1 thought on “A New Frontier?”

Comments are closed.