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Less-Than-Daily Service: The New Thing?

Frontier just announced that it’s resuming nonstop flights from its Denver hub to Fargo, with three-times-weekly flights. And my friend Don in the North Carolina High Country reports that come fall, US Airways will switch is daily summertime Charlotte-to-Portland nonstops to three flights a week.

Clearly, two isolated schedule changes don’t make a trend. But you have to wonder if this does, in fact, signal the start of something like a trend among the network airlines.

For as long as I can remember, the network airlines’ gospel has been to serve each domestic hub-and-spoke route at least once daily. Where traffic wasn’t enough to support these frequencies with mainline equipment (these days, 737s, 319s, and MD80s), airlines would keep frequencies up by switching to smaller regional jets or turboprops. But those small planes are becoming increasingly uneconomical to operate, so switching to less-than-daily flights with bigger planes looks enticing to the bean counters.

The question is whether less-than-daily flights will also look enticing to the marketplace. To be sure, Allegiant has developed a cash cow with its special business model of infrequent flights from smalltown U.S.A. to blockbuster tourist destinations. But Allegiant caters strictly to leisure flyers looking to spend a few days in popular destinations, while traditionally the network airlines have found they also need some high-fare business travelers in their mix to make a profit. And industry conventional wisdom is that those business travelers demand good frequencies.

Industry watchers will no doubt take a close look at these and any other routes downsized to less-than-daily flights. If they work, you can expect more. And that means if you traditionally fly on a relatively low-traffic route such as Charlotte-to-Portland, be warned that you may face some combination of no-fly days and the need to change planes rather than fly nonstop.

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