Apr. 14--What's in a name? Republic Airways is about to find out.
The Indianapolis company ended months of public speculation Tuesday when it said it would scrap the Midwest Airlines name and keep the Frontier Airlines name to help it compete more aggressively for the budget traveler.
The move represents the largest branding decision in Republic's history. For years, Republic operated in relative obscurity, flying on routes outsourced to it by big-name carriers whose own jets were too big to make money flying to smaller cities. The company did not fly under its own name.
But that changed last year when Republic bought Frontier, based in Denver, and Midwest, based in Milwaukee, and decided to merge operations under a single name. Republic gained both airlines in a fierce bidding war, then set off an industry guessing game for months as it decided which name to keep as it consolidated the two carriers into a national airline.
Republic said its marketing research showed that both airlines had loyal customers and passionate employees in their hubs. But beyond that, it was a much different picture.
"Outside their hubs, there really wasn't a whole lot of awareness for either one of them," said Ian Arthur, Republic's vice president of marketing and branding. "It was a blank slate, an opportunity to grow."
The company surveyed customers, employees and the public to see which name would position it better to compete. In the end, Frontier's reputation for low-cost fares won out over Midwest's reputation of customer pampering, with warm chocolate chip cookies and its upscale travelers' club at its hub airport.
"Quite frankly, Frontier had a more-defined brand in the space we need to move, which is the low-cost carrier space," Arthur said.
Republic said it plans to combine the best features of both companies under the Frontier name. It will serve warm cookies on all flights, keep open its Best Care Club in Milwaukee and open another in Denver. And it plans to spread Frontier's highly recognized animal trademarks, including Jack the Rabbit and Grizwald the Bear, onto all planes. As a concession to Milwaukee, Frontier will add a plane with Wisconsin's state animal, the badger.
But some airline experts wonder whether Republic can keep high service and low fares, without sacrificing one or the other.
"The Midwest brand was a very high brand, which a lot of travelers came to know and appreciate," said Bryson Monteleone, marketing director for Tailwind Capital LLC in Redmond, Wash. "I just wonder if Frontier can maintain that service level."
But some others said air travelers don't really expect high service on airlines, while they demand low fares. "Air transportation has become a commodity," said George Hamlin of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Virginia. "Service expectations are pretty low."
Republic's challenge is to compete for business as the industry goes through another wave of consolidation. The latest reminder of that was widespread speculation last week that US Airways and United Airlines were in talks to merge. As more airlines team up and drop hubs, they leave certain markets in more need of service, such as Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C., said Bryan Bedford, Republic's chairman and chief executive officer.
"The guys who stand to pick up the pieces are the low-costs carriers, and we are aiming our company right at the market," Bedford said. "This is where we're going to see the growth emerge."
Already, Frontier is bulking up, announcing Tuesday it will launch 10 new destinations in Denver and five in Milwaukee this year. The company also plans to add an unspecified number of jobs.
In Indianapolis, Republic has already added about 100 jobs since it bought the two airlines and plans to add about 150 more in coming months.
Frontier Airlines is set to exit bankruptcy protection on Thursday as part of Republic Airways.
Republic's bid won out over a higher bid by Southwest after pilots leaders for Southwest and Frontier could not agree.
Files plan of reorganization
Choosing routes is a complex, time-consuming task that ultimately boils down to figuring out which flights will be profitable.