Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic a general rule permeated the domestic airline industry. You focused South Florida operations on either Miami or Fort Lauderdale and unless you were a US legacy network carrier (American, Delta and United), you generally didn’t serve both. Palm Beach International, a third commercial airport in the region is much smaller than the other two (which are classified as “major hubs” by the FAA) and generally just maintains service to airline hubs or focus cities (though this week Breeze, David Neelman’s startup announced Saturday-only nonstops from West Palm Beach to six cities only currently served from Fort Lauderdale or Miami).
Miami in January 2020
As 2020 began, American Airlines operated a mega-hub in Miami (MIA) with Delta Airlines (which began the year with more flights out of Fort Lauderdale than Miami at the time) planning a hub or some sort of connecting complex at MIA. Frontier Airlines was in the process of shuttering Fort Lauderdale completely in favor of a growing Miami operation which resembles that of a hub. Frontier is should be noted for a long time when they were a Denver-focused airline flew exclusively to Fort Lauderdale in south Florida. They began Miami service in 2014 and gradually shifted local focus toward MIA.
Fort Lauderdale in January 2020
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale (FLL) had what amounted to a hub or focus city for JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit, while Allegiant operated a fair number of point-to-point routes from FLL. United Airlines while serving both airports, was far stronger in Fort Lauderdale. Alaska Airlines, a network carrier albeit a west-coast focused one joined the One World alliance which includes American Airlines but only served FLL in south Florida.
International carriers flee Fort Lauderdale
The retreat of international carriers from Fort Lauderdale actually began in 2019, when British Airways cancelled service from FLL to London and Volaris shifted its Fort Lauderdale service to Miami. In 2020, Fort Lauderdale lost Norwegian service to Paris-CDG and Oslo as well as TAME, the Ecuadorian national carrier that went belly up and Emirates who suspended Fort Lauderdale and eventually shifted to Miami. One exception was service to Canada which continued during the pandemic, Fort Lauderdale being one of a handful of US cities that maintained service to points north-of-the-border during this period. Miami, for a time lost all service to Canada.
Alaska and United experiment with point-to-point Fort Lauderdale service
Both Alaska Airlines and United began several point-to-point routes to Fort Lauderdale (as well as Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers) when much of the nation was shut down but Florida was open. Many of these unique routes have since been suspended or outright cancelled. But they represented the opening salvo, demonstrating that with business travel non-existent in the era of COVID, that leisure flying to south Florida might be the way to keep struggling airlines in business.
Southwest jumps into Miami
A larger theme of the pandemic has been Southwest’s entry into airports it long avoided as business traffic was down. Chicago-O’Hare and Miami were two of the most prominent. Southwest’s 2020 entry into Miami, was met with much fanfare and the airline, which carries the most domestic passengers most years grew its MIA operation rapidly while downsizing Fort Lauderdale and effectively leaving West Palm Beach as one of the smallest stations in its network.
Southwest’s Miami growth came directly at the expense of FLL. However, by mid-2021 it was clear the airline was reversing course, leaving Miami stable with the flights its had rapidly added in late 2020 and early 2021, while beginning a slow build-up again at Fort Lauderdale. More on that shortly.
Enter jetBlue at MIA
For years the popularity of jetBlue, a truly “hip” airline led Miami-Dade residents to drive north to Fort Lauderdale to fly the airline. In December 2020, jetBlue announced it would begin Miami service with nonstop flights to Boston, Los Angeles, Hartford, Newark and New York-JFK. This service would compliment the large operation at Fort Lauderdale where jetBlue serves about 60 cities nonstop, many of which are international destinations.
American retaliates at Fort Lauderdale
American and jetBlue have a partnership in the Northeast, one receiving significant anti-trust scrutiny since Merrick Garland took over as Attorney General (it may be the single issue Florida’s Republican Attorney General, Ashley Moody agrees with the Biden Administration on). While the Trump DOJ had rubber-stamped the arrangement, and Biden had yet to take office in December 2020, American perhaps for aesthetics or perhaps for tangible reasons retaliated the day after jetBlue’s Miami announcement with several “new” routes to Fort Lauderdale. In fact, all of these “new” routes had been offered by AA previously from FLL, in an era when American operated a Fort Lauderdale focus city. The “new” routes were Boston, Los Angeles, New York-JFK and Port-au-Prince.
Spirit invades Miami with a HUGE offering
In June 2021, the biggest shockwave was felt in this ongoing tussle between the airports, as Spirit Airlines, who flew the 5th most domestic passengers in 2020 (effectively making them the largest US airline outside the “big four,” announced the opening of Miami as a destination with THIRTY nonstop destinations. Spirit’s large Fort Lauderdale hub had in fact been growing larger during COVID, taking the airline from a virtual tie with Southwest and JetBlue in market share at FLL in early 2020 to a more than 2-1 advantage over both in June 2021.
Southwest brings International back to FLL
The day after Spirit announced its Miami entry, Southwest’s south Florida focus seemingly shifted back to Fort Lauderdale with the restoration of several international routes from FLL (however significantly not Havana which perhaps eventually is flown from Miami) the airline had flown pre-COVID and shelved in March 2020. As part of this restoration of flights, Southwest restored several domestic frequencies from FLL to feed the international flights. However, Southwest remains far smaller at Fort Lauderdale currently than they were in early 2020. As we’ll see later, Frontier in December 2021 made the decision to shift several second-tier nonstop destinations from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. Most of these are cities served by Southwest from Fort Lauderdale and not Miami, which indicates Frontier smells weakness with Southwest at FLL.
Improved Delta Sky Club at Fort Lauderdale
Delta opened an improved business-friendly Sky Club in Fort Lauderdale’s Terminal 2 in 2021. This lounge has already via anecdotal evidence attracted premium fliers on Delta back to FLL.
Spirit begins shifting flights to MIA from FLL
The claim when Spirit entered Miami was that its virtual megahub with about 70 nonstop destinations from Fort Lauderdale would be unaffected. Miami service was entirely complimentary and designed to solidify Spirit’s status as South Florida’s “hometown airline.”
Several destinations suspended from Fort Lauderdale this winter are being flown from Miami for the first time – Hartford, Minneapolis/St Paul, Raleigh/Durham and Managua.
Spirit continues to be the number one airline in Fort Lauderdale by some distance but jetBlue has begun to claw back market share at FLL since Spirit’s foray into Miami.
Delta-LATAM tie-up goes forward, includes several MIA routes
Delta’s pre-COVID plans for a Miami hub were largely based on the equity investment the carrier was making in LATAM, a previous partner of American. Delta will stick its “DL” code on four nonstop LATAM flights from MIA to South America, early next year. However, to this point Delta is making no moves to add feeder flights to Miami to compliment LATAM’s service. Prior to COVID the plan was to add Miami operations to feed this service, but during COVID, Delta has been conservative with growth outside of resuming many long-dormant nonstops from Boston, where Delta took its eye off the ball for a decade.
Allegiant quietly grows FLL
Allegiant Airlines which has traditionally avoided primary airports has partially shifted its business model during the pandemic entering Boston, Baltimore, Newark, Minneapolis/St Paul and several other major hubs while growing Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale, the only three”major” hubs as classified by the FAA they previously had bases at. Most new FLL flying has been to secondary Midwestern cities like Peoria, Appleton and Des Moines, but the airline has quietly increased its Fort Lauderdale operation to a very competitive 25 nonstop year-round nonstop destinations. Allegiant also is the one major airline that has significantly grown its West Palm Beach presence during the pandemic. They still do not serve Miami, though I have been told that is likely to change in the near future.
Alaska returns to Miami
Alaska moved all Miami service to Fort Lauderdale a decade ago. But entry into the OneWorld alliance has made serving American’s Miami hub critical. Alaska will return to MIA in 2022 with Seattle flights, but will continue to serve FLL with nonstop flights to multiple west coast cities including Seattle.
Frontier returns to Fort Lauderdale with flights (apparently) shifted from Miami
Perhaps the most predictable move was Frontier Airlines which as noted above had shuttered FLL completely, moving back into the airport, with the (apparent, as of the latest schedule data) shift of several nonstop second-tier destinations (places like Rochester, NY, Portland, ME, Albany, NY, Buffalo, Providence and Green Bay among others) from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. Most first-tier destinations (places like Boston, Denver, New York-LGA, Newark, etc) will continue to be exclusively served from Miami. As noted above, Frontier seems to have cherry-picked a few destinations where Southwest flies nonstop from FLL but is under-performing of late to target, shifting those flights from MIA.
Frontier continues to have a huge operation at MIA, but shutting down FLL was unwise for the ultra-low cost carrier especially on thinner leisure routes to places in the Northeast and Midwest which historically perform much better from Fort Lauderdale than Miami. Besides as Frontier’s return to FLL confirms these days serving South Florida involves being strong at both major local airports, not choosing one or the other.
Where we stand
After the shift of flights is complete in February 2022, Frontier will join Southwest and Spirit as the only airlines that serve more than 10 nonstop destinations from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. As noted above, in April 2020, Southwest and Spirit did not fly to Miami and Frontier had shuttered Fort Lauderdale apparently for good to focus on Miami.
Meanwhile, American and jetBlue have picked strategic routes to compete on in the other’s base, though American remains Miami-centric and jetBlue, Fort Lauderdale-centric by any objective standard.
It should also be mentioned here that Delta’s market share at both FLL and MIA remains fairly high given the lack of nonstop options from the airline. But Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport is Delta’s largest hub and its number one global route in 2020 from Atlanta in terms of passengers carried was to Fort Lauderdale. Miami was also in the top ten. So Delta continues to carry a LOT of passengers from south Florida and remains a major forces on FLL/MIA-NYC routes.
It’s a whole new world in commercial aviation. Today airlines feel they must have a decent operation in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale to adequately serve the Southeast Florida market, whereas pre-COVID the assumption you pick on or the other to primarily focus on. Though it must be noted, United Airlines one of the nation’s largest has shown no real interest in increasing its minimal service to Miami, and focuses on Fort Lauderdale in southeast Florida. But United is the exception, to what is becoming a general rule that having a robust presence at both airports is key to competing in the local market.