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Vanishing Frontier

August 31, 1986

Frontier Airlines, founded as Monarch in 1947, once was an integral and stalwart part of the Rocky Mountain West. Frontier's hardy DC-3s would buck mountain storms and the winds of the high plains to serve isolated places like Riverton, Grand Junction, Minot and Miles City. Later came green-and-white Convairs and then prop-jet Convairs and finally the big jets of the modern air age with its deregulation, wide-open competition and merger mania.

Today, Frontier's jets sit motionless on the ramps at Denver's Stapleton Field and may never carry another passenger, irrigation pump or oil-drill bit under the Frontier flag. The best short-term prospect for Frontier had been a proposed sale to United Air Lines, but the deal fell through with a UAL spokesman commenting, "The airline we attempted to purchase doesn't exist anymore." This is, of course, because parent People Express shut down Frontier last Sunday because of mounting losses and then filed for bankruptcy on Thursday.

There is a limit to lamenting the demise of Frontier Airlines as a Western institution. After all, even before Frontier was taken over by no-frills People Express last November it too had joined the post-deregulation rush to serve rich, distant markets like Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Frontier, like other carriers, dropped some of its isolated and expensive-to-serve communities as it joined the fare wars on lucrative but competitive routes. Excessive ambition played a role.

And Frontier's cessation of operations does not strand scores of Western communities without any air service. Of the 55 cities and towns served by Frontier (down from 89 in pre-deregulation days), only one is left without an airline of some sort, Frontier says. That is not a Western outpost of Frontier service, but Rockford, Ill.

Still, the loss of Frontier service will provide a hardship for communities throughout the West, particularly towns that must rely on commuter lines with limited passenger capacities, high fares, safety records that sometimes are called into question and records of financial instability. Perhaps Kalispell, Mont., is lucky, for it still has the service of Western to and from Salt Lake City and Horizon, a commuter line, to Spokane and Portland. But Frontier's grounding leaves Kalispell without service to Great Falls, Billings and Denver --the hub from which residents of northwestern Montana conveniently could reach any city in the nation.

"Everybody talks about it," said Nick Harren, manager of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce. "Everybody groans. It definitely causes a hardship." Will another line fill in the Kalispell-Denver route? No one knows. Kalispell is a thriving community of 26,000. The loss of service will not just inconvenience passengers but may hamper business growth as well.

Deregulation has been a boon for some airlines and for millions of passengers, primarily in frequency of service and cheap fares on the major routes. But hundreds of outlying American towns and small cities have suffered. Their major air service has become more expensive, less available or, often, not available at all. A recent survey showed that average air fares ranged from 7 cents a mile in large cities with healthy airline competition to 25 cents in smaller cities.

Frontier's demise could be just another step toward the concentration of air service in the hands of a few giant carriers. Then, of course, fares likely would rise on all but a few highly competitive routes. A return to the rigid regulation of the past is unlikely, nor would it necessarily be the best solution. But the federal government at least can use its anti-trust authority to make certain that cutthroat competition and merger mania do not get out of hand.

The airlines certainly cannot be forced to serve unprofitable routes. But they enjoy certain public benefits such as runway and terminal construction and maintenance. They should consider their responsibility to serve the public needs as well as their own quarterly profit statements before they soar into glamorous, high-risk markets and leave loyal old customers grounded.

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