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This article originally appeared on Delaware Business Times. Reporting by Peter Osborne and Jacob Owens.
Frontier Airlines‘ first destination from New Castle Airport will be Orlando starting on May 14, officials announced Tuesday morning.
Word of the return of commercial flights to New Castle Airport this spring spread late last week after Gov. John Carney’s published schedule noted a press event scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 28.
On Tuesday morning, just hours before the scheduled press conference, Frontier’s booking system was updated to once again feature New Castle Airport, known by Frontier as Wilmington (ILG). The first available nonstop flight from Delaware will be to Orlando International Airport (MCO) in Florida on Thursday, May 14.
Frontier will fly three days a week – Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in the early afternoon – after service is restored, officials announced. The low-cost airline is offering a $29 promotional fare one way or $58 round-trip through Jan. 31, although a variety of other charges for carry-on bags, checked luggage and seat assignments can push costs higher.
Although Frontier sees itself as a point-to-point airline rather than one that focuses on selling connecting flights, there are five other locations – Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas, San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Ontario, California – that local passengers can book as a connection from their flights to Orlando, according to Frontier’s site.
Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of commercial operations for Frontier Airlines, said Tuesday that Orlando is Frontier’s second biggest base of operations for the airlines, making it a natural first destination choice in its return to Delaware. It was also the most successful route for the airline in its prior tenure, he added.
“Small, convenient airports are a wonderful thing,” Shurz said.
New Castle’s airport offers low-cost parking and a quick walk across the tarmac to awaiting airplanes for customers looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of large airports like nearby Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).
Shurz said Frontier’s decision to return to the market it left five years ago included its passenger growth in the Philadelphia market; a 20% decrease in costs since 2015; and data that indicates a strong customer base in Delaware based on its passengers’ residential zip codes. Shurz said Frontier did not receive any incentives from state or local sources.
But in an interview after the press conference, Shurz seemed thrown off by a question about whether Frontier saw its return as a “pilot.”
“We want it to succeed,” he said. “As an airline, if we don’t see the right results relatively quickly, we absolutely pull service. But this is not a test. We think this is the right way to come back into the market. Last time, we started with a relatively large number of destinations. We learned from that and have a better sense of what will work.”
If the Orlando route proves successful this time around, Frontier will consider adding new nonstop destinations, perhaps as early as next winter, Shurz said. He speculated that a north Florida destination might make sense.
“We’ve started service in other airports in the region and we’ve become much more stable in terms of where we fly,” he said, noting similar concerns about their operation out of Trenton-Mercer Airport (TTN) in New Jersey. “We found a recipe in Trenton that works and we just celebrated our seventh anniversary there … I think we’re proving in this region that we’re here to stay.”
According to federal data, Frontier flights were about 80 percent full out of Wilmington on average in 2015. This time, Shurz said that the airline expects to have an 85 percent load factor, noting its service to Orlando from airports in the region currently run just under 90 percent.
“We don’t think this is an unrealistic target,” Shurz noted, adding that the airport fees Frontier will face are about half the price here as they are in Philadelphia.
Shurz seemed to indicate that Frontier will market the proximity to Philadelphia rather than Delaware as a destination on its own. He did say he expects traffic to come from throughout the state and that Frontier is not seeing much Delaware traffic for its Baltimore operations.
Thomas Cook, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the airport under a long-term $1 per year lease with New Castle County, praised Carney for his economic development efforts and the state’s congressional delegation for securing federal funds to upgrade the airport. Cook said his team will finally have answers after the “three years of questions” about the future of commercial service out of the New Castle Airport.
He credited former DRBA Executive Director Scott Green, who stepped down in 2017, with setting the stage for the airport’s facility upgrade and noted that DRBA is adding faster boarding, ticketing and check-in queues.
The Delaware Business Times published articles in mid-September about efforts to recapture passenger flights for the airport after Denver-based Frontier quietly ended service in late June 2015. DBT also published a story in early October about New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer’s creation of a 12-person task force chaired by former Delaware Economic Development Director Alan Levin to study the future of the airport in advance of the county’s June 2020 deadline for renewing, renegotiating, or canceling the agreement with Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the airport under a long-term $1 per year lease with New Castle County.
Frontier announced a massive network expansion last month that did not include the Delaware airport, but reported 25 new routes beginning in 2020. Several of those planned expansions would come out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) while also opening a new hub at Miami International Airport (MIA) and restarting service to Central America. It also is adding new destinations in the Caribbean while preparing for an influx of more than 150 new Airbus planes.
It was July 1, 2013, when Frontier Airlines began its nonstop service out of New Castle Airport. Before its closure, the airline had made nonstop runs to Chicago-Midway, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Myers, Florida, but normally ran only two flights per day out of the New Castle Airport.
Frontier’s departure left Delaware as the only state in the country without regularly scheduled passenger airline service. It was the seventh airline to make an attempt at commercial service out of Delaware only to fall by the wayside.