Spirit Airlines may have only started flying from Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport in June of 2021, but the airline has quickly become one of the most frequently flown at the airport.
In December alone, Spirit accounted for 10% of the passengers traveling through Mitchell, nearly catching United Airlines, at 11.3%, for the fourth highest total.
From July to December, the first six full months of flying out of Milwaukee, Spirit flew more than 161,000 passengers, around 5.2% of all passenger traffic through the airport.
At least some of Spirit’s quick gains came at the expense of Frontier Airlines, which had 3.3% market share in December compared to 5.4% in December of 2020.m From July to December, Frontier had 4.2% share at Mitchell, down from 7.6% share in the first half of the year.
The two airlines announced plans Monday to merge in a $6.6 billion deal that would create “America’s most competitive ultra-low fare airline.” The companies estimated consumers would save $1 billion annually based on new routes made possible by the deal. Those new routes would come from schedule efficiencies, improved fleet utilization and block time optimization. The combined company would also be able to enter 32 new markets that neither would likely be able to compete in on their own.
At Mitchell, the two airlines do share some overlapping destinations. Both flew to Orlando, Fort Myers, Florida and Las Vegas in December and January and Tampa was a destination for both in just December.
Some of the impact of Spirit shows up in the number of flights for Frontier, although the pandemic and continuing recovery of air travel may make comparisons a little more complex.
In December 2020, Frontier had six flights from Milwaukee to Orlando on its schedule and four weekly flights to Las Vegas. In December 2021, with Spirit flying from Milwaukee to Orlando and Las Vegas every day, Frontier had dropped to three Milwaukee to Orlando flights and two Las Vegas flights per week.
Frontier had also scaled back its Milwaukee to Denver flights, which Spirit does not fly to from Mitchell, from four per week in December 2020 to two in December 2021.
Comparing January 2021 to January 2022, Frontier went from seven weekly flights to Orlando down to four, it no longer had its one weekly flight to Tampa and had increased its Las Vegas flights from one to three.
Spirit flies seven times per week to all of those cities from Mitchell.
The two airlines will continue to operate separately until the merger is finalized and Mitchell officials do not expect any changes to published schedules as a result of the deal being announced, according to Harold Mester, director of public affairs and marketing at the airport.
Mester directed questions about the combined network and schedule planning to the airlines.
Erik Hofmeyer, director of communications at Spirit, reiterated the airlines will operate separately during the regulatory review.
“It’s business as usual and too early to get into future flight options for the time being,” Hofmeyer said in an email.
Kerry Tan, associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, said this merger is unique in bringing together two ultra low-cost airlines in contrast to prior industry consolidation that combined a mix of legacy or low-cost carriers.
Tan, whose research focuses on airlines, said the deal likely won’t worry bigger carriers like American or Southwest, but other ultra low-cost carriers like Allegiant or Sun Country could be threatened by it.
“Those airlines are on alert now,” Tan said.
Allegiant did fly out of Mitchell starting in 2017 but stopped in 2019 amid stiff competition. The airline has since begun flying more out of the Appleton airport.
Sun Country began flying out of Mitchell earlier this year to Minneapolis, Cancun, Las Vegas, Fort Myers and Phoenix. Four of those five destinations are also served by Frontier or Spirit. The airline hasn’t seen quite the same success Spirit has at Mitchell, averaging just under 2,900 passengers per month for the fourth quarter and holding around 0.6% of the passenger share at the airport.
Mitchell has recovered to around 80% of its pre-pandemic passenger traffic and has seen the addition of a number of airlines, including Spirit and Sun Country. The recovery has been driven primarily by travel to leisure destinations.
“I think you’re going to see those types of destinations maintain or possibly even increase from a city like Milwaukee,” Tan said.
He predicted the combined Frontier and Spirit may be able to fly to a wider variety of destinations and together the companies would have improved reliability with an expanded fleet.
While any merger can leave the combined company in a position to potentially raise prices, Tan said that isn’t likely from the combination of Frontier and Spirit. For starters, the airlines differentiate themselves by being ultra low-cost and they also face the prospect of competition from the likes of Southwest and Sun Country.