Frontier has decided to go big in Puerto Rico, adding 8 new routes starting in May and bolstering its already growing position in the market. The airline has had its eye on this market for awhile, but I can’t help but wonder if the JetBlue acquistion of Spirit has anything to do with the decision to make a bigger move on the island. If that merger goes through, this will give Frontier an enormous head start in the market just in time for its primary competitor to disappear.
Puerto Rico is a challenging market, and that could very well be because it’s a challenging place to live. Puerto Rico’s population peaked near 3.83 million around the turn of the millennium. Thanks to economic struggles, issues with access to healthcare, more regular natural disasters thanks to climate change, and more, that has plunged to 3.26 million currently and it’s expected to continue to drop. According to the UN (chart below), the rosiest case scenario has the island losing another 1 million people by the end of the century.
These are all just projections, but they all point downward and there’s little reason to think that will change in the near future. This does not bode well for the island’s prospects, but in a sense, it does create opportunity for airlines.
Sure, there are issues like slowing birthrates, but the biggest decline in population is due to people leaving the island to live elsewhere. More than a million Puerto Ricans live in New York and Florida, but New York has not seen the growth that Florida has in recent years. While New York’s Puerto Rican population has remained relatively flat, Florida’s has grown from about 850,000 in 2010 to nearly 1.2 million a decade later. If you’re wondering just how bad Puerto Rico’s situation is… just knowing people are fleeing for a better life in Florida should show just how dire it is.
The next largest states in terms of Puerto Rican population are in the Northeast, and this predictably has created a route map from the island focused on those two areas. The largest airline in Puerto Rico is JetBlue and has been for many years, ever since American packed up its mini-hub and went away. Considering JetBlue’s biggest presence is in Boston, New York and Florida, well, it’s a perfect match.
As recently as summer 2018, JetBlue had about 40 percent of departing seats in the market. That has been creeping downward with January 2023 at 27.8 percent. Why? Because the ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) are moving in.
Puerto Rican Departing Seat Share
This is a perfect market for ULCCs, because the traffic visiting friends and family is huge but also not overly wealthy. People would much rather fly more frequently and save money on each trip than save up for one big trip a year and pay more. The opportunities for a ULCC to move into the market were obvious, and both Spirit and Frontier answered the call.
Spirit has been in the market for longer, but it wasn’t a meaningful player in the early days. When JetBlue peaked in summer 2018, Spirit started showing more interest in the market. It flies to many of the same cities as JetBlue, but it does it at a lower fare (if you don’t need to buy too many ancillaries).
Here’s a look at the January 2023 route map for both airlines. Markets in yellow are served only by Spirit, those in blue are only by JetBlue, and green means they’re served by both.
Even where the airlines don’t overlap, they really do. Spirit serves Miami, but JetBlue is still nearby in Fort Lauderdale. Spirit is at BWI while JetBlue is at National. And JetBlue is alone at JFK but both are at Newark.
If/when a Spirit/JetBlue merger ever gets finalized, we can expect the map to… not look much different. JetBlue will presumably continue to serve these markets since they work for JetBlue. Either way, most people who are served well by JetBlue today will continue to be well-served. But with the JetBlue model winning out, fares will have to rise, and that’s where Frontier will be able to strike.
Frontier first went into the market in June 2017, and it hasn’t really put its foot on the gas since then. In typical Frontier fashion, it has tried a whole lot of markets, and some of them have made the cut. But a surprising number have been around for awhile now. Most of these markets are in the typical Northeast/Florida region, but Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham are in the mix as well. So Frontier is clearly willing to push those boundaries.
Now it’s adding some less likely suspects. From San Juan, it will now fly Baltimore, Chicago/Midway, Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit… and Cancun. With the exception of Cancun, the other markets are larger cities that have decent Puerto Rican population sizes. Looking at a 2010 list of the top US communities by Puerto Rican population, Chicago is third, Boston is tenth, and Cleveland is twelfth.
Here’s how the route map looks. Red cities are already flying while green are new ones.
Note that Orlando and Tampa look new, but those are already served from San Juan. Orlando will now get Ponce service — the first by Frontier in that city — while Tampa gains Aguadilla.
The moves from San Juan punch deeper into parts of the country with fewer ties to Puerto Rico, and that could be more about tourism than anything. As with most Frontier efforts, I imagine some routes will work and others will not. But this does help Frontier position itself to easily swoop in and start taking traffic away from Spirit if it becomes JetBlue and fares rise.