Ten months ago, I wrote about the aggressive expansion plans of New York-based JetBlue Airways into international markets from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL). The big question at the time was how this would impact Spirit Airlines, an “Ultra Low Cost Carrier” based in Broward County, whose largest hub operation is at Fort Lauderdale. Additionally since that article was written Southwest Airlines, the Dallas based carrier which is one of the largest airlines in the world in terms of passenger traffic has made it clear that they will begin to build Fort Lauderdale into an international gateway beginning in the very near future.
Miami International Airport (MIA) has long been a hub for flights from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, it remains the top airport for flights to Latin America from the United States. American Airlines dominant presence at the airport has however stifled competition from the airport forcing airlines to develop other hubs such as Houston or Atlanta to service Latin America. Low-cost carriers have also fled en masse choosing Fort Lauderdale.
Today, the Sun Sentinel reported that Spirit is in talks to compliment its Fort Lauderdale service with routes to Miami International, though rumors are abound among local aviation enthusiasts that a full scale shift may take place. I have traded messages with a few insiders who believe Spirit may maintain some presence in Fort Lauderdale even if they shift the bulk of international flying to Miami.
Fort Lauderdale has long been a low-cost airport, but with terminal refurbishment taking place and the completion of a new runway, the operating costs at the airport will be increasing in the next few years. Fort Lauderdale’s costs will continue to be lower than Miami’s though. Palm Beach International Airport, the third commercial airport in the region has high operating costs and minimal traffic when compared to the other two airports.
A few years ago Allegiant Airlines whose low-cost business model is somewhat similar to Spirit, albeit with no international flying decided to make a move from low-cost Sanford Airport in Seminole County to Orlando International Airport. Allegiant began shifting flight to the larger airport and watched its costs unanticipatedly balloon. They eventually pulled the plug on the move to Orlando International Airport, and have resettled at Sanford successfully.
If Spirit does make the full-on move to Miami International it could be considered a big coup for MIA in its long-standing battle with the upstart airport a county north. At the same time though, it could free up valuable gate and terminal space at FLL for JetBlue, Southwest and other airlines wanting to aggressively expand at the airport.
Psychologically this would be a big coup for Miami International Airport. MIA has for years seen carriers and flights fleeing to FLL. While backers of the airport have consistently cited the number of international carrier beginning service to Miami, the majority of domestic airlines have chosen to focus on Fort Lauderdale and some have even abandoned service to Miami entirely. While MIA’s boosters won’t always admit it, they have been in a campaign to undermine the momentum of FLL for many years now.
In a business meeting I had earlier today, the lack of cooperation between Broward and Miami-Dade Counties on a number of subjects was a major talking point. However, this time the ruthless competition between the two counties may actually benefit both- Miami gets a low-far airline that can force the airport’s airfares down and Fort Lauderdale gets more space for the carriers really interested in growing an international hub operation in Broward County.
UPDATE- Spirit employees have received an email we learn that claims that the airline does NOT to plan to leave Fort Lauderdale. Of course United and Delta recently informed employees in Cleveland and Memphis that they did not plan to close hubs in those cities before formally beginning the process of shutting down those hubs or moving operations elsewhere.
I do not know that this actually not simply an effort by Spirit to gain leverage in Fort Lauderdale. Your reporting is accurate though some of your conclusions may prove not to bear out. I suspect I know some of the people you are talking to. They are telling me the same thing. But I simply don’t believe that having a large MIA operation can fit within the structure of Spirit the most notoriously cost-conscious airline in the business.
I really like your Allegiant example. That is spot on and if this is true could very well be what happens here. Spirit goes and then comes running back when costs soar.