Two new low-cost carriers have started flying to and from the Charlotte region since last year, and a third, Denver-based Frontier Airlines, kicks off air service from Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Wednesday.
But so far, the new airlines have brought only a handful of flights, nibbling around the Charlotte market and its 800-pound gorilla, American Airlines, which merged with US Airways in December.
Frontier will fly between Charlotte and Trenton-Mercer Airport in New Jersey four times a week. Flights are scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.
The schedule is similar to Allegiant Air’s twice-weekly service between Concord Regional Airport and an airport outside Orlando, Fla. The airline started those flights, Concord’s first commercial passenger service, in December.
“They seem to be picking around the edges, at these secondary airports,” said New York-based aviation consultant Bob Mann. “It’s hard to believe there’s enough to sustain that.”
Southwest Airlines started flying daily from Charlotte to Chicago, Houston, Baltimore and Orlando in April, replacing AirTran’s service.
None of the new airlines has anything close to the 650 or so daily flights that American Airlines operates from Charlotte Douglas. The airline accounts for more than 90 percent of daily flights in Charlotte, which is its second-busiest hub after Dallas/Fort Worth.
A Frontier spokeswoman said the airline’s bookings so far from Charlotte to Trenton have been “in line with expectations.”
“We have no additional plans for expansion, but we will continue to monitor the performance of the route,” said Kate O’Malley.
To lure customers, Frontier is offering lower fares. Trenton is about 35 miles from Philadelphia, another American hub. A round-trip flight booked Friday for next week on Frontier cost $166, while a round-trip flight on US Airways from Charlotte to Philadelphia cost $649.
But such alternative destinations, while often cheaper to fly to, don’t offer the same connections or convenience of a major airport, and they are unlikely to attract high-yielding business customers. They attract price-sensitive leisure travelers.
The average round-trip domestic airfare at Charlotte Douglas was $415 in the third quarter of last year, the most recent data available. That’s 6.5 percent above the national average, and airfares rose 2.6 percent from the third quarter last year.
George Hobica, founder of AirFareWatchdog.com, said he doesn’t expect new carriers in the Charlotte market to bring down fares, except on the few select routes where they directly compete with legacy carriers.
“Allegiant and Frontier will have a slight downward pressure on fares, but only on a few seats, and US Air won’t match dollar for dollar,” Hobica said. “We’ve seen that on the (Philadelphia)-Vegas route where US Air has lowered fares considerably to compete with Spirit.”
Frontier, like Allegiant, also charges more fees than legacy carriers. The airline charges some customers $25 to $100 for carry-on bags, for instance. Florida-based Spirit Airlines, another ultra-low-cost carrier, charges passengers $3 for a bottle of water. That gives legacy airlines breathing room in not matching rock-bottom fares.
“US (Airways) knows that consumers are aware of these discounters’ fee structure, so US doesn’t match dollar for dollar,” Hobica said.
Mann said there is precedent for an ultra-low-cost carrier establishing a bigger presence at a major hub. Spirit has established more than 20 daily flights from Dallas/Fort Worth, and the carrier flies internationally to Latin American destinations.
“They’re still not a major factor there, but they do provide the most price-discretionary customers an option to American,” he said.
Mann said Charlotte Douglas officials face a quandary. They have to keep American, their primary tenant, happy, but many local travelers still want more options.
“I know where the bread is buttered. You’ve got to keep American happy,” Mann said.