Traveling from Wichita to Denver by air won't be so costly anymore.
That's because low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines said Tuesday it will begin once-daily service, three times a week from Wichita Eisenhower National Airport to Denver International Airport.
The announcement from the Denver-based carrier brings competition for the first time in nearly six years to a nonstop route that has been served only by United Airlines. United's mid-week, roundtrip fares are as much as $815 from Wichita to Denver, an airport official said.
"I guess you could say we've had mile high fares to the Mile High City," said Valerie Wise, Wichita Airport Authority air service and business development manager. "But not anymore."
United wouldn't comment on whether the airline will lower its fares to compete with Frontier in Wichita.
But, "we are focused on offering competitive fare offerings to our customers in all of the markets we serve," United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in an e-mail to The Eagle.
Frontier will launch Wichita to Denver service beginning Aug. 30. Its flights will operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Flights will depart Wichita at 6 p.m. and arrive in Denver at 6:39 p.m. local time. Return flights will depart Denver at 2:40 p.m. and arrive in Wichita at 5:09 p.m.
Fares on Aug. 30 start at $58 one way to Denver. The return flight on Sept. 2 is also $58, according to Frontier's website. Fares appear to remain low a few months after it starts service. A flight departing Wichita on Nov. 8 will cost $58, while the return flight on Nov. 13 would only cost $24, according to flyfrontier.com.
But you'll have to pay a minimum of $30 extra for your carry-on bag, and a minimum of $25 for the first checked bag, according to the website. Passengers are allowed to carry on the plane a purse, laptop bag or kid's backpack for no additional fees.
Frontier will use an Airbus A320 narrowbody jet on the route, which according to its website is configured for 180 passengers.
Currently, United Airlines is the only carrier offering nonstop service from Wichita to Denver. Airport officials and area business travelers have complained about United's high fares to Denver.
"This additional capacity is a godsend," Wise said. "We need that. We have an increased demand for travel and we don't have the seats."
Wise said average fares from Wichita to Denver have increased 88 percent since Frontier ended its Wichita to Denver service in November 2012. At the same time, she said, passengers traveling from Wichita to Denver have decreased 44 percent. She attributes the decrease to passengers flying to Denver from other airports, such as Salina, or driving.
Third time a charm?
Frontier has offered service from Wichita two other times. The most recent period was from 2002 to 2012, when the Fair Fares subsidy program initially brought the airline's regional service here under Frontier JetExpress. That service was later scaled back from regional jets to turboprop service offered first by Great Lakes Airlines and, later, Lynx Aviation.
Before that, Frontier operated big jet service using Boeing 737s at what was then Mid-Continent Airport until the airline declared Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy in 1986.
Now under a new owner, private equity firm Indigo Partners, the airline is adding service to new cities almost weekly. It currently offers service to nearly 90 cities in the U.S., Canada, Dominican Republic and Mexico through more than 300 daily flights.
"Basically we're expanding fast," said Frontier's Stephen Shaw at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at Eisenhower Airport. "We have about 200 (Airbus) planes on order so we're looking for places to fly."
He said the high fares from Wichita to Denver were among "lots of variables" Frontier considered in starting service in Wichita.
"Back when we left (in 2012) we were a totally different airline," he said. "We've gone through a bankruptcy since then. We've come out with a different business model, one that's more sustainable."
Shaw, an Arkansas City native and Frontier's third party ancillary manager, said the airline could expand the number of days and flights it offers should demand call for it. But right now, the airline is most comfortable with once-daily service, three times a week.
"We are constantly monitoring all our routes," he said. "If the seats are full, the planes are full, that will definitely catch our attention for adding additional service."
Wise said the last time Frontier served Wichita it competed well against United. She thinks it will do so again even with a limited flight schedule.
"I feel very confident with three days of service a week rather than every day that we should be able to fill those seats," she said.
That is, as long as people flying out of Eisenhower ". . . support them so we can have low fares," Wise added.
"Let's learn from the past. Let's support the low-fare carriers so we can keep our fares affordable," she said.