Airports, Airlines, Aviation

Frontier holiday disaster

Prior to the Christmas holiday, the Frontier holiday disaster impacted travelers across 10+ airports due to flight cancellations and delays. I was also one of those impacted travelers, trying to get to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with my parents. And yes, it was really that bad. Check out this article by Westword explaining the frustration and impact to customers traveling out of DEN.

You can also see the disproportionality of Frontier flights being cancelled or delayed over the past week (Dec 22 – 29) as compared to other, larger airlines (notable exception was SkyWest Airlines). You can also see how poorly DEN performed (which possibly could share some of the blame being hoisted upon Frontier). While all airlines at DEN experienced some issues over the weekend of Dec 17/18 due to the snowstorm, most were back to normal operations by Sunday evening.

Airline performance over last 7 days
Airline performance over last 7 days according to Flightstats

Here’s a timeline of the Frontier holiday disaster, starting on 14 December with this Facebook post highlighting the delays due to weather.

  • Dec 15 – Weather delays throughout Midwest due to Winter Storm Decima. Frontier broadcast this on Facebook:
    Frontier holiday disaster
    Frontier holiday disaster timeline
  • Dec 16 – Frontier again issues a Facebook post further commenting about Winter Storm Decima and how delays and cancellations are piling up, and there will also be a delay in customer service (via phone and at the airport).
  • Dec 17/18 – No social media update on Facebook related to the storm, but 70% of Frontier flights experienced some kind of delay over the weekend. Incidentally a smattering of other time-inappropriate Facebook posts about new destinations, sales, and low-fares amidst the operational chaos did notably appear.
  • Dec 19 – this post was issued on Facebook: “We made several tough decisions to cancel and delay flights, and we understand this is a big inconvenience to our customers.” By the end of the day, 275 Frontier flights nationwide were cancelled and it completed about 65%, according to the Denver Post. By the afternoon, 40% of non-DEN luggage connecting in DEN were still not being re-routed properly through the system.
  • Dec 22: By the time my flight came around, the delays and cancellations were more under control but still not gone. On Thursday  I had a ticket for Frontier flight 415 from DEN to LAX, scheduled to depart at 440PM. I got to the airport around 2PM only to learn within minutes of arriving that the flight was delayed 6 hours. Frontier did not tell me this early enough to do anything about it and stay at home. So, my ride picked me up again and then dropped me off once more 5 hours later. In actuality, the flight didn’t take-off until about 1149PM, arriving at 1259AM. Annoyingly, not only was the flight super late in boarding, but then we actually sat on the runway for 24 minutes before getting clearage to leave (might have been a DEN airport issue, admittedly). This Frontier holiday disaster actually caused me to miss my own birthday dinner with my parents in Los Angeles 🙁
Reasons for the Frontier holiday disaster
  • Frontier too reliant on the DEN hub. Around 65 Frontier flights take off from DEN daily, making it Frontier’s largest airport. This manifests itself not only in market distribution (Frontier route saturation) but also in operational elements all overly reliant on Denver as a key hub. Frontier flies about 60 flights from DEN, where its largest crew contingency is based. According to the Denver Post, 650 pilots are Denver-based, three times as large as in Orlando and Chicago. 750 flight attendants are based in Denver, which is a little less than double the number in Orlando and Chicago.
  • Operational issues. Besides the baggage handling and routing issues mentioned above, the Frontier holiday disaster was  a comedy of operational errors. According to Capt. Brian Ketchum, who is chair of the Air Line Pilots Associated (ALPA) Frontier Airlines Master Executive Council:

    This most recent meltdown by Frontier Airlines is due to the same executive mismanagement and misplaced focus on cost-cutting that has placed Frontier near the very bottom of the industry in operational performance and customer satisfaction.

    This manifested itself also in the lack of functional (and not overly-DEN reliant) contingency and risk plans in place to stem the tide of cancellations and delays. One such example is the cascading effect that one poorly timed cancellation or delay can ripple through the entire scheduling system. The plane can be available but not have a crew due to crew members “timing out” (reaching the limit of the amount of time they can fly uninterrupted), or the crew being unable to reach the departing airport of the flight they are going to work because their flight in to that airport was cancelled. (Example: DEN to LAS is cancelled, causing Denver-based flight attendants not being able to work the LAS-CLE flight). These scheduling issues seem to run rampant at Frontier. Rather than stem the tide and pre-cancel flights to ease the bottleneck, Frontier sat on its hands and watched the disaster play out.

  • Staffing issues. To handle the Frontier holiday disaster, the airline brought in extra staff and recruited many non-airport Frontier employees to give up their time-off and work overtime to help sort and deliver bags. Frontier’s focus on bare bones service and poor customer service reputation clearly helps the carrier keep costs down. But, does it lead to employees wanting to go above and beyond when they feel over-worked and under-appreciated? Probably not. There were even rumors of a strike or walk-out taking place during this stressful time for employees.
  • Lack of empowered customer service agents. Customer service agents on the phone have no power to do anything to ameliorate or compensate a travel, and the airport agents are barely better off. The call centers were overwhelmed due to the cascading effect of the recent Frontier holiday disaster and wait times to reach a customer service agent at the airport exceeding several hours in some cases. By the end of Dec 19 alone, Frontier customer service agents received 1,800 emails and approximately 16,000 calls (not to mention the angry tweets). Also, poor training and lack of uniform procedure has also been cited as a reason for customer service related issues.

Traveler frustration over the Frontier holiday disaster was running high. Here’s a tag cloud representing passenger sentiment put together by @area51testpilot:

Frontier holiday disaster - summed up by
Frontier holiday disaster – summed up by

As one of those frustrated travelers caught up in the delay maelstrom, I can certainly empathize. However, for an $84.20 round-trip itinerary, it’s hard to complain too much. As is also the case with these no-frills, customer service limited Low Cost Carriers (LCCs), you pay for what you get. So there should never really be the expectation of helpful customer service, but I do think Frontier should still be required to honor the terms of their product – which is essentially to get me from point A to point B at a specific time. That’s the “business contract” I paid for, and I would expect any reputable business that wants to stay in business to deliver on that promise.

Frontier did not do that, nor did they have customer service agents empowered to compensate me or mitigate these circumstances at all. To date, after talking to phone customer service, customer service at the airport, and the gate agent (all of whom were able to absolutely nothing and explained that I would automatically receive an email with compensation after the flight departed), the best I was able to do is a $100 voucher. This seems to totally vary by experience, level of complaint, and social clout. I may try a renewed bout of customer service complaining when I’m at the airport for my return flight.

If you’re wondering what to expect from Frontier in terms of compensation and passengers rights, read this blog by airfarewatchdog. This statement from Frontier spokesman Richard Oliver pretty much sums it up:

Weather-related delays do not require compensation or rooms overnight. The same would apply with any other airline. When it is weather-related, we are not required, nor is it in the contract, to provide food.

2 responses to “Frontier holiday disaster”

  1. Chandra, we missed you at your birthday celebration in Los Angeles. You may have inferred this in your blog, but your frontier flight to LAX was bumped to the end of MAJOR airlines leaving out of Denver. Frontier…you don’t have much clout in Denver. Rethink your business policy, else you will be filing chapter 11.

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