It’s back: Passenger air service returns to Delaware

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Wilmington-New Castle Airport. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

When Frontier Airlines stopped flying to Delaware in 2015, the First State became the only state without commercial airline service. Frontier will resume flights from the Delaware in May, the company’s senior vice president Daniel Shurz announced at the Wilmington-New Castle Airport Tuesday morning.

“We recognize the demand for affordable air travel in Delaware,” Shurz said. “We’ve been watching as our presence in Philadelphia has grown and … we kept watching Delaware-origin customers and we’ve seen now a large enough number.”

Flights will start May 14 with Orlando as the only destination. “Going to a really important, sought-after destination like Florida is going to be a success, and we’ll build on that success,” said Gov. John Carney. “Frontier’s return will give Delaware and travelers in the region a low-cost, convenient way to travel with their families.”

Instead of cutting a ribbon, Gov. John Carney joined leaders from the Delaware River and Bay Authority to cut a cake marking the return of commercial passenger flights to Delaware via Frontier Airlines. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

The low-cost carrier will offer some one-way seats for just $29, with an additional charge for luggage and carry-on bags. “My dad, if he was here, he’d be signing up all of his nine kids,” Carney said. “We’re getting on that $29 flight and we’re going to Disney World.”

While the low price is expected to be a major selling point, Frontier expects the convenience factor to be an even bigger draw. “Small, convenient airports are a wonderful thing,” Shurz said. “There aren’t all the same offerings, but that small convenience, easy to get on the plane, easy to get off the plane and get back to your car, that is something that really appeals to a large number of customers.”

Flights will use Frontier’s A319 aircraft which seats 150. They will fly on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The company expects those flights to be at least 85% full. “We run our services in this region to Orlando just shy of 95% overall in terms of load factor, so we don’t think it’s an unrealistic target.”

Since Frontier stopped flights from Delaware in 2015 after just two years, Shurz was asked how he would respond to those skeptical that flights will continue longer than that this time around. “I understand the skepticism, I’m telling you that we are here to stay. I’m telling you that that’s our intention,” he said. “We’re confident from the data we see, we’re confident from the way we’ve been received in the market more broadly, that this time we’re here to stay.”

Before Frontier’s departure in 2015, there had been complaints about long delays and poor service provided by the airline. The most recent U.S. Dept. of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report shows only 78.5% of Frontier’s flights arrived on-time in November. That’s the lowest percentage of any major American carrier. November’s number is higher than Frontier’s year-to-date average, which shows just 72.9% of its flights arriving on-time for 2019.

Shurz says the company’s on-time performance is improving. “There is certainly a perception out their about our performance, I don’t think it matches reality.” He said their flight cancellation rate ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other airlines. “We’ve been making significant investments in our operational performance in the last few months,” he said. “When we say low fares done right, we mean the ‘done right’ part is delivering what customers buy, which is a flight that’s on time, which is a flight that operates.”

Frontier’s announcement comes just a few months after New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer launched a task force to determine whether commercial passenger flights were the best use of the airport. The county owns the airport and signed a 30-year lease with the Delaware River and Bay Authority to run it. The county has until this June to notify DRBA if they intend to renew that lease.

“The truth is, New Castle County and DRBA are not the best operators of that facility,” Alan Levin said in October. The former state economic development director will lead the county task force.

DRBA executive director Tom Cook said the agency is working with the county in its effort to explore its options for the facility. “I applaud the county executive for looking into it. We are here to provide the information to them so that they can make a decision,” Cook said.

Meyer said the DRBA and the county both want the same thing in putting the airport to its best use. “Obviously, there will be disagreements about the specifics of strategy, but just trying to figure out what’s the best way to manage this facility so that jobs are created, so that our constituents have opportunities to fly all over the country and all over the world.”

A 2018 economic impact study commissioned by DelDOT found the airport provides direct employment for more than 1,600 workers and generates $10 million in state and local tax funds.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal