Frontier and Spirit Airlines made headlines both in and outside aviation last week when they announced their impending merger. I don’t think that surprised many people in this industry. These carriers use the same type of aircraft and they are both adept at using the Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) business model.
All in all, this is good news for pilot jobs. It could even have positive effects on the rest of the airline industry.
More jobs, better flying
Frontier and Spirit competed in several popular markets. By merging, they will be able to free up resources to expand into new places.
The shared website they set up to announce the merger claims that this expansion will create 10,000 new jobs in the next few years. While many of those jobs will be ground staff at new locations, Frontier alone had enough planes on order before their announcement to triple the size of the airline. That means plenty of pilot jobs for aspiring aviators.
For a young aviator, a job with a carrier like Frontier is a great opportunity. Rookie regional airline pilots flying smaller planes like the Bombardier CRJ200 or Embraer E145 don’t accumulate flight time quickly. A friend of mine spent long days flying five or six stages, not climbing above 18,000 feet, to log a total of 2.5 hours of flight time. At this rate, it takes years to accumulate enough hours to be attractive to a larger airline.
ULCCs like Frontier and Spirit compete with regional airlines for the same pool of new pilots. They even take steps to beat the competition with programs like the one between Spirit and ATP Flight School that provide a fast and safe path to great professional flight work. Why would a pilot fly for an ULCC instead of a regional? Frankly, the flight, money and treatment are so much better there is little comparison.
Instead of sweating at low altitudes all day flying short distances in an old jet, ULCC pilots can fly an all-new Airbus A320Neo across the country and even Central and South America. A leg can last several hours and they are likely to fly more each day to work than their regional airline counterparts.
If these pilots want to upgrade to an even more prestigious airline, these quickly accumulated flight hours will help them reach their goal sooner. Otherwise, they enjoy good seniority in a company with better pay and benefits, and a pleasant variety of stopover destinations. The best ULCC pay rates are usually about double the best regional airline pay rates.
Given the choice, it’s hard to find a reason why a young pilot would choose a Regional over an ULCC.
ULCCs as catalysts for change
Regional airlines are already struggling to recruit because major airlines have started a hiring spree. Now Regionals will have increased competition from a Frontier/Spirit powerhouse working to optimize a combined operation with new destinations and more aircraft.
I suspect regionals will increasingly have to forego staffing their operations.
This poses an existential threat to regional carriers themselves, and a logistical and economic impact for large airlines that depend on their power to and from smaller markets. The A320Neo is so economical to operate that it can compete with traditional regional jets in smaller markets. The Airbus A220’s astonishing efficiency allows it to operate at about the same price as a Bombardier CRJ900 or Embraer E175, but it carries 30 to 60 more passengers. (Breeze and JetBlue have this one figured out. I wouldn’t be surprised if other airlines of all types join Delta in adding the A220 in the near future.)
Major airlines cannot afford to abandon their presence in these smaller markets, so they will have to adapt.
In my opinion, the best way to reduce costs is to completely abandon the regional airline model. These jets are uncomfortable, these subsidiaries waste resources on duplicating corporate structures, and they cannot afford high enough pay rates to attract long-term pilots.
Instead, major carriers could absorb CRJ900 and E175 jets for their smaller routes, while using efficient new planes like the A220, A320Neo and even the Boeing 737 Max for everything from regional food to long, thin roads in the 2,000 to 4,000 -mile range.
The pilots flying these aircraft would be on the seniority list of a major prestigious airline. The pay rates for the smaller jets might not be as high as those for other narrow bodies, but they wouldn’t be lower than what regional airlines are currently paying anyway.
If competition with ULCCs forces major airlines to adapt in this way, it will be better for all pilots in the industry.
Democratize air transport
The younger generations in our society are increasingly concerned with ensuring equal access to good opportunities. Many young workers are looking for employers whose values match their own.
The ULCC business model works because some travelers need to prioritize cost above everything else. Whether you’re traveling in the United States or abroad, our world relies on the ability to travel great distances quickly. A pilot who thinks everyone deserves access to this type of travel will be more likely to seek out and stay with an airline that shares their goals.
Spirit’s President and CEO, Ted Christie, eloquently celebrates his ability to provide this service in his company’s merger announcement, saying, “We are thrilled to partner with Frontier to further democratize air travel. .”
By staying true to this ideal, companies like Frontier and Spirit can enjoy a moral advantage over some competitors. Pilots who go there for this reason will get fulfillment beyond better pay and a better quality of life.
Personally, I don’t like all aspects of the CHLC model. However, I must admit that carriers like Frontier/Spirit have the potential to improve the lives of pilots and customers. The fact that these types of carriers seem to be thriving in the United States suggests they’re definitely onto something.
If you’re looking for a good pilot position in a strong company, this merger might be the best news you’ve heard so far this year.