Frontier eyes more markets in Central America and Caribbean

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Frontier Airlines is looking at complementing its newly expanded Costa Rica service with potential new routes to Belize, Honduras, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.

Earlier today Frontier selected Liberia in Costa Rica as the low-cost carrier's second international destination outside Mexico. ATI sister publication Airline Business Magazine first reported in its August issue that Frontier was evaluating Liberia as part of a potential expansion of the carrier's international network.

In an interview with Airline Business, Frontier vice president of strategy and planning Daniel Shurz also said the Republic Airways subsidiary was evaluating Belize City and Roatan, Honduras in Central America as well as Grand Cayman and Montego Bay in the Western Caribbean.

Shurz says Frontier sees unique opportunities for growing its international network from the central and western USA because other US low-cost carriers currently do not operate such routes. So far Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways only operate international routes from the east coast while the largest US low-cost carrier, Southwest Airlines, does not operate any international services.

"Until Southwest starts international services we're unique," Shurz explains.

He says unlike Spirit and to some extent JetBlue, Frontier is only focused on leisure rather than ethnic markets as it expands internationally. As a result, Frontier is unlikely to launch services to markets such as Managua in Nicaragua, Mexico City, San Salvador or Panama City.

Frontier currently serves San Jose in Costa Rica and several Mexican beach destinations. Mexico is served with up to 24 flights on peak winter days from Denver as well as Indianapolis, Kansas City and Milwaukee.

In evaluating international markets outside Mexico, Frontier is focusing on its main Denver hub. All leisure markets within the range of the carrier's Airbus A319s are considered. Shurz says Hawaii is too far away, and in the Caribbean only the western islands such as the Caymans and Jamaica are within the range of an A319 from Denver.

"We may make a bet on one or two of those Caribbean markets," Shurz says.

In Jamaica, Montego Bay would be the logical destination for Frontier as Kingston is more of an ethnic market. In the Caymans, only Grand Cayman can support jet aircraft.

Frontier now serves San Jose daily during most of the winter and summer plus five weekly flights in the spring. During the off peak season, which runs from late August to mid-December, the service does not run at all, making it a "long seasonal market". But Shrurz says "at some point we may try a low frequency operation during the low season".

Shurz says San Jose "has been a good market" since Frontier entered in late 2007 with four weekly seasonal flights from Denver.

While Spirit serves nearly every Central American country, JetBlue also only has one destination in the region - San Jose. JetBlue vice-president network planning Scott Laurence told Airline Business the carrier is now evaluating additional routes to Costa Rica beyond its current Orlando-San Jose link, which it launched in early 2009. He says the carrier is also evaluating potential destinations in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

"For the most part we are working our way down the list," Laurence says. "Central America will clearly be part of our growth plan."

Unlike Frontier, which only sells a small fraction of its Denver-San Jose seats in Costa Rica, JetBlue sells about half of its Orlando-San Jose seats locally. Local sales helped the carrier add capacity on the route in February, when its year-round daily flight was up-gauged from an Embraer E-190 to an A320.

JetBlue is eager to serve both the leisure and ethnic visiting friends and relatives market as it builds its Latin American network. Laurence says JetBlue initially was "frankly deeply concerned about" being able to secure enough local sales to make routes such as Orlando-San Jose and Orlando-Bogota viable. In Colombia, JetBlue has quickly been able to build up a local presence and local sales now account for about 70% of tickets sold on the Orlando-Bogota route.

"The success of these routes has us looking for more in the region," Laurence says.

Liberia is one of several destinations on JetBlue's radar screen. Spirit will become the fourth US carrier serving Liberia when it launched its seasonal weekly flight to the western Costa Rica destination next February.

According to Innovata, Liberia currently has daily service from Miami by American Airlines, from Houston by Continental Airlines and from Atlanta by Delta Air Lines. US Airways also operates one flight per week to Liberia from Charlotte while Continental operates one flight per week from Newark and American has two flights per week from Dallas.