Air fair? Why low-cost carriers can’t overcome Delta’s dominance

With Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier offering cheaper fares, experts predicted the hometown airline would start to sweat

This year brings expanded service at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from Spirit and Frontier, low-fare airlines that are so no-frills they’ll charge you to use the overhead storage. But hey, this is good news, right? Atlanta’s getting cheap tickets! More competition! More flights!

When it comes to airfares, what goes up doesn’t necessarily come down.

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Hold up—weren’t we supposed to already have all that thanks to Southwest Airlines? When the Dallas-based carrier gobbled up AirTran Airways for more than $1 billion in 2010 and started its own service at Hartsfield-Jackson in 2012, hoopla ensued. Experts predicted the “Southwest Effect” would push all airfares down and make hometown heavyweight Delta Air Lines sweat. With the Southwest and AirTran merger complete, it’s time to take stock. Did fares drop? Did we get more flights to more places? Did Delta quake in its proverbial boots? The answer: Not really.

Southwest was founded in 1971 as a scrappy upstart, reflecting its rough-around-the-edges founder Herb Kelleher; when I met him in 1996 at a press event near Chicago, he was smoking, talking, drinking a cocktail, and loudly eating a piece of cake—all at the same time. But now the airline serves some 100 million customers annually and operates more than 3,400 flights a day to 94 destinations in the U.S. and six other countries. Delta boasts an annual passenger count of 170 million and runs a whopping 15,000 daily flights to 333 destinations in 64 countries.

“You’re not dealing with David and Goliath here when you’re talking about Southwest and Delta. It’s Goliath and Goliath Jr.,” says Michael Boyd, a long-time aviation consultant and president of Colorado’s Boyd Group International. “Southwest really isn’t going in and lowering fares. AirTran already did that. Fares have gone up across the board.”

0515_airlineslowdown_oneuseonlyThat said, on any given day, Southwest generally offers lower fares out of Atlanta than Delta, Boyd says. For its part, Southwest claims to have saved customers more than $1 billion since the airline entered this market. But AirTran’s tickets were consistently cheaper still—and forced competitors to match.

What does this mean for budget-conscious Atlanta travelers? Delta’s dominance makes it harder for other airlines to compete at the Atlanta airport, and the carrier strongly opposed a suggested commercial airport in Paulding County, which could have increased competition.

Delta operates 1,000 flights a day out of Atlanta. Before their merger was finalized, AirTran and Southwest ran 180 daily flights from here. Now Southwest operates 125, and its strategy makes any increase in the number unlikely. Where AirTran offered many connecting flights, using the same “hub-and-spoke” philosophy as Delta, Southwest prefers “point-to-point” operations. The airline connects a lot of passengers through Nashville, so it has little incentive to create a second hub in Atlanta. And Southwest doesn’t want to try to shoehorn flights into the holes in Delta’s schedule the way AirTran often did. (It’s worth noting that while Southwest has cut some flights, its passenger count is growing. There are more seats on the remaining flights because Southwest replaced AirTran’s 117-seat 717 jets with larger planes such as 143-seat 737 300s.)

Southwest is trying to stand out by going after bargain-hunting travelers, as well as small businesses that appreciate the no-change-fee and no-baggage-fee policies. It’s also playing up a reputation for good customer service. (Southwest got a higher score than Delta on the J.D. Power 2014 North American Airline Satisfaction Study, though both airlines ranked second in their respective categories.) Its “Heartlanta” ad campaign includes a TV spot declaring: “Atlanta, we don’t care if you’re diamond, platinum, or pewter. Heart means you don’t need miles to earn these smiles.”

0515_airlinesgoliath_oneuseonlyDelta’s Atlanta-targeted ads, meanwhile, have focused on civic stature, reminding us how many neighbors the airline employs. Delta shares its profits with those folks; a jaw-dropping $450 million went to Georgia employees in early 2015.

There’s no way Southwest, with just 29 gates, will be able to unseat 70-gate Delta as the reigning carrier here anytime soon. Industry watchers are confident that Southwest and Delta will be able to coexist fairly peacefully.

So what about Spirit and Frontier? Spirit, based in Florida, is known as an ultra-low-cost carrier that can get you a $49 one-way fare to Atlantic City, then charge you between $10 and $25 to pick a seat (which won’t recline) and another $35 to carry on more than a small personal item. With direct flights from Atlanta to Atlantic City, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, and Houston—and connections to more than 30 domestic and international locations—Spirit is adding nonstop flights to 15 more cities starting this month. “They’re not afraid to move into bigger markets that are hubs for other carriers,” says William Swelbar, executive vice president with aviation consulting firm InterVistas Consulting.

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Frontier, based in Denver, is similarly spartan, with cheap tickets—sometimes as low as $14.99 one-way—and extra fees for everything from seat selection to using overhead space. The airline, which flies from Atlanta to 16 cities, will add flights to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York LaGuardia, Cincinnati, and Minneapolis in the spring.

But there’s good news for Atlanta travelers. Frontier and Spirit will compete with each other and with Southwest and Delta on five Atlanta routes: Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Philadelphia. Furthermore, Delta, Frontier, and Spirit will fight over passengers headed to Chicago O’Hare (Southwest uses Chicago Midway).

Says Swelbar, “I think it’s certainly going to breed new competition and aggressive pricing in the market.”

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Online exclusive: Sweetheart of a deal?
In February, Southwest declared war on Delta country with a deal for Atlantans only: Take three roundtrip Southwest flights from Hartsfield-Jackson before May 17, and earn a pass that allows your companion to accompany you on unlimited flights for free through December 31. We crunched the numbers on “Heartlanta” and realized we could earn a pass for less than $300. How hard could it be? Read about our writer’s experience taking six flights in seven days.

Graphic sources: Boyd Group, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Delta, Southwest

This article originally appeared in our May 2015 issue.

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