Some people don’t like Denver’s hometown airline, which has seen its share of hardtimes. However I’m happy they are still around, even if I’m flying a competitor (typically United or Southwest) on a given day. Here are a couple reasons why I appreciate them, despite checked-bag charges and a rewards program that doesn’t fit my needs very well…

1. Frontier is the reason flights out of Denver are so inexpensive.

This probably applies to their other hubs/focus cities (Kansas City, Milwaukee, Omaha) however Denver is the point of focus as that’s where I live at the moment. Southwest is often caught having to match Frontier’s fare sales rather than the other way around.

An example of this behavior is the pair of $39 (plus taxes and fees) one-ways I got between Denver and Austin…on Southwest, using their rewards program so my out-of-pocket cost was $5 for the round-trip plus a paltry amount of Rapid Rewards points. Granted, the flights were on a Tuesday and Saturday outside of the peak travel season, but I guarantee you that Southwest handed all of their “producer surplus” (sorry, economist lingo) to me, and then some, thanks to the heated competition in DEN over every passenger on most major routes.

Such competition might not be sustainable (at least at those fares), however Frontier can take the heat better than Southwest, due to Frontier’s lower cost structure (they’re aiming to be a “ULCC”, or Ultra Low Cost Carrier), versus Southwest. This is why the airline is still around in Denver; Southwest can’t engage in predatory pricing aggressive enough to smoke them out.

2. Frontier allows you to pay for the services you want, and offers them at a reasonable price.

Frontier has three fare categories: Economy, Classic and Classic Plus. The cheapest option tends to be comparable to Southwest’s cheapest in price, but includes a few less amenities: no free checked bags, and changes cost $50 plus the fare difference. Then again, if you don’t check bags (me 90-plus percent of the time) and don’t change your flight (me 90-plus percent of the time) I’ll take the risk with Frontier because they’re a little more convenient when flying out of Denver, and are more comfortable while en route (wider, more comfortable seats, chocolate chip cookies instead of hundred-calorie snack packs).

The delta between Economy and Classic is usually $25 or so, and if you want no change fees and checked bags you can get both with that fare. Or you can buy some of the components (DIRECTV, checked bags) a la carte if you have a cheaper fare. Add a few more dollars on and you get frequent-flier treatment (seating up front with more legroom, a free alcoholic beverage, priority security lanes and boarding) without needing to meet the airline’s (low) qualifications for such tiers. Or, again, you can pay for STRETCH seating (United calls an inferior product Economy Plus) and the beverage on a lower fare…and these upgrades cost less than, say, Economy Plus’s upcharge on United.

As an added bonus (for me anyway), if you want snacks on board (beyond the cookie) you can buy them, at a reasonable price and with known good quality (I’ve tested this out a few times). The good thing (if you’re a customer) about buy-on-board is that the airline has to work to make the product good enough to convince customers to buy it, and Frontier does a good job at achieving this. Try buying anything other than liquor or a Monster on a Southwest flight and they’ll look at you funny and walk away.

Speaking of Southwest, they have three flight tiers just like Frontier. The difference is that there is very little that you gain from upgrading fare classes, and the upcharge cost is steep in many cases. Case in point: I’ve never bought a Southwest fare above their cheapest category. I have (once) bought a Frontier Classic ticket, and have bought on-board items, checked bags and seating upgrades on Frontier multiple times, and been happy with what I paid for.

3. Frontier is expanding smaller-city service.

Going back to the competition again, AirTran (now owned by Southwest) used to serve a number of airports where it operated more mainline flights than the rest of the airport’s tenants, combined. AirTran contracted out labor (or maybe had a few staff based locally) and everyone was happy, despite the tight Economy seat pitch of AirTran’s 117-passenger Boeing 717s.

Then Southwest bought AirTran and, since their labor agreements don’t allow subcontractors on the ground, started killing these smaller bases. Plus some big, redundant ones like Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami (served respectively by Dallas-Love and Fort Lauderdale). In many of these cases, AirTran was the only low cost carrier to serve those airports so, absent new competition, fares of competitors will increase.

In contrast, Frontier is actually adding service to smaller airports, in some casesreplacing what Southwest has left, in others experimenting with entirely new service. Frontier doesn’t seem to want to wring every last penny out of these new markets on a per-person, per-fare basis (unlike legacy carriers) and tends to have larger (and thus more comfortable) planes than the ERJs or CRJs that tend to frequent airports of that size. The airline tends to fly into destination markets (e.g. Orlando) or into Denver, which is a nice airport (the best hub that I’ve been through, compared with DFW, Miami, Charlotte, Houston-Hobby and Chicago-Midway) with a high level of efficiency and a low level of sitting on the ground, waiting for gates to become free (ahem, Atlanta). So Frontier coming into a market is a win for anyone wanting to fly to or from there, even if they only serve a city or two nonstop (versus Southwest, who tends to serve a half-dozen from any given airport), and those on a sub-daily basis to start with.

So…what do you think about Frontier?