THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2022 --
Bill Franke is the devil. But give the devil his due: He has done more to change flying in the last three decades than any human being on the planet.
That you may not have even guessed his name is part of Franke's game. Until Monday's announcement of the $2.9 billion deal that will combine Frontier and Spirit airlines, a merger Franke has pursued for nearly a decade, he metaphorically flew under the radar. He does not play with other airline industry Skygods and almost never speaks in public about passenger issues or travel trends. He's never claimed to be an av geek or have jet fuel in his veins.
But please allow me to introduce him: He's a man of wealth and absolutely no taste. He's been around for long, long years and he's stolen many a frequent flyer's soul and faith.
Don't be confused by the nature of his game: Everything wrong with flying today--endless, offensive fees; phony low fares; cramped seating; crappy service; sleazy, sneering C-suite managers who despise passengers; fake schedules; and disregard for reliable operations--is Franke's handiwork. He's degraded and cheapened flying on three continents and is unapologetic about his place in the flying firmament.
Travel sucks because of Bill Franke and he brazenly insists he is doing you a service by lowering the price of flying. He's not and he doesn't, of course, but, like I said, he's the devil and the devil is as proud of his lies as his achievements.
Before we talk about the 84-year-old Franke's corrosive effect on travel these last years, a quick recap of the framework of the proposed Frontier-Spirit merger:
The two firms--Frontier currently controlled by Franke's Indigo Partners, and Spirit, which Indigo once owned--are essentially the same operation: "ultra-low-cost" carriers that fanatically focus on cost even if the penury affects operations. They assault the passenger with a relentless series of fees and leave you to your own devices when they fail to deliver.
Frontier and Spirit combined would be the fifth-largest carrier in the nation after American (run by a Franke protege); Delta (which invented Basic Economy fares as a "Spirit-fighting" tactic in Detroit); United (also controlled by a Franke protege) and Southwest. They have a combined fleet of about 280 aircraft--all Airbus models--with more than 300 more on order.
The merger would fuse Spirit's largely Eastern network with Frontier's mostly Western strength. It would have huge operations in leisure destinations such as Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas and Tampa and strength in markets such as Detroit, Denver and Chicago/O'Hare. The two carriers would have about 6% of the nationwide flying market.
Passengers despise flying both carriers. Frontier and Spirit racked up the most complaints from flyers in the most recent Transportation Department monthly report. Each generated complaints at about twice the industry average.
Frontier's shareholders will get controlling interest in the merged carrier and that means Franke will be in charge. He'll pick the CEO--almost assuredly Barry Biffle, Frontier's chief executive--and make the decision on the few things that differentiate the airlines. He'll even decide on the airline's name and it needn't be either Frontier or Spirit since neither carrier generates any brand loyalty. Virtually 100% of their sales are from travelers hunting for real or imagined bargains.
Even as the merger was announced Monday, Frontier was in an FAA-imposed nationwide ground stop because its operations mysteriously melted down. If nothing else, it was a bright, red line under the nature of these two carriers.
make a case that Franke has assiduously pursued this merger because he's smart enough to realize that the nation's other carriers have finally figured out how to deal with him and his slash-and-burn tactics. He needs the heft to compete now that United and American are run by his acolytes and use essentially the same gimmicks. For all the damage Franke has done to U.S. aviation, he's never had the impact here as he has had with his other vehicles: Wizz Air in Eastern Europe; JetSmart in Chile; and Volaris in Mexico.
But that's a niggling observation. Franke has been a disruptive innovator--a negative disrupter, but a disrupter nevertheless--since the day he bought America West out of bankruptcy in 1994. At the time he knew nothing about airlines, but he was an accomplished corporate cost-cutter. So he cut and cut and he kept cutting, stopping only to hire Doug Parker, now the chief executive of American Airlines, and Scott Kirby, now the CEO of United.
Low light of his tenure at America West? He called a scheduled flight back to Phoenix after it departed because the aircraft was needed to service a more profitable charter flight. Travelers on the scheduled flight were unceremoniously dumped back in Phoenix with nary an apology or explanation and waited hours for alternate transportation.
At Spirit from 2006 to his departure in 2013, Franke stood behind the former Killer Bs of US Air, Ben Baldanza and Barry Biffle, as he transformed an indistinct little regional carrier into a monstrosity that celebrated ugliness and nastiness as brand standard. Baldanza and Biffle once denied a ticket refund to a terminally ill Vietnam vet who was told by doctors not to fly. The Killer Bs and Franke's logic? The vet should have bought travel insurance. His imminent death had nothing to do with them. Another time, Baldanza turned away a customer complaint by explaining that said passenger would book another carrier if they charged a penny less than Spirit.
When Franke's first attempt to fuse Spirit and Frontier failed in 2013, he sold his interest in Spirit and bought Frontier. He dismissed David Siegel, another notorious US Air cost cutter, because he wasn't sufficiently dedicated to slashing and burning. Franke brought in Biffle and they cut and they cut and they cut until Frontier was even ickier and less passenger-friendly than Spirit. They laid off call-center employees, entered and exited markets with head-spinning speed and regularly melted down because of its miserably skeletal staffing and aged technology. Monday's ground stop was an almost comical counterpoint to Franke's oft-repeated claim that he gives passengers the chance to fly with low fares. All too often, they don't get to fly at all.
But through all this, Franke has recognized one distressing travel truth: Some flyers are dumb enough or desperate enough to buy into his fantasy of low fares and then allow themselves to be caught in his web of rapacious fees and operational ineptitude. His dedication to flying garbage and his conviction that another traveling sucker will come along any minute has made him even wealthier than he could have imagined in 1994.
For nearly 30 years, Bill Franke has laid our flying souls to waste. No government has stopped him. No regulatory agency has disciplined him. He has found willing allies who traded their souls for executive positions. And rather than be better, big airlines around the world have joined his relentless race to the bottom.
Every time Franke wins, we lose. If a Frontier-Spirit merger passes regulatory muster, we'll lose again. And Franke will be there to explain that he does it all for our benefit. That's how the devil operates.