Frontier Airlines (1946-1986): Remembering a legend

By Bob Schulman

Jets of the original Frontier Airlines lined up at Denver International Airport.You've just boarded the flight and plopped into your seat. The first thing you notice is that there's lots of legroom... so much, it looks like they've accidently put you in first class.

No, there's no mistake. The jet – a Boeing 737-200 – carried as many as 124 passengers on other airlines. But this carrier has just 98 seats in the same kind of plane, and all in coach. They advertise: “First-class comfort at coach prices.”

Later in the flight, the passengers ooh and aah as the flight attendants set up their trays for the meal service. There's real silverware, fine crystal glasses and crisp linen napkins.

Next comes the big eye-popper: when the flight attendants lift the foil off the meals. There – on chinaware, no less – is a mouth-watering double entree of char-broiled steak and lobster. And topping it all off is a bottle of imported Mateus wine. (On this airline's other flights the entree might have been veal and lasagna... or eggs benedict... or Beef Wellington... or Monte Cristo sandwiches... or ice cream sundaes... or Apple Pie in the Sky.)

And it was all free. And in COACH!

Coach passengers enjoyed first-class legroom and a fold-down center seat (if not occupied) for added elbow room.The airline was the original Frontier Airlines (no relation to the modern-day Frontier). Based in Denver, it was born in 1946 along with the first wave of baby   boomers at the end of World War II.

Monarch of the western skies

Frontier, at first named Monarch Airlines, was one of two dozen “local service” airlines created by Uncle Sam to handle a huge upswing in regional air travel in the roaring post-war economy. Monarch changed its name to Frontier a few years later when it absorbed two of the other new kids on the block. Their combined routes – mostly puddle-jumper hops flown with war surplus DC-3 “gooneybirds” -- stretched out to 40 cities in seven states.

Like the early boomers, Frontier grew up over the next 25 years. It painted its colors on yet another airline, enlarged its route network to 94 cities in 26 states, and swapped its smaller propeller planes for jets.

In 1971, under a new management team, the airline debuted what turned out to be a winning marketing philosophy: “Run on time, tell passengers the truth and give them better service than they expect from an airline.” From this came Frontier’s “golden era” when its customers enjoyed the added legroom and all the other perks they never expected from an airline.

The good times came to an end in the shockwaves of airline deregulation in 1978 when in Congress' zest to free the skies for competition it also unleashed the multi-billion-clout of the big airlines against the little guys. Guess who won.

A look back: During its 40-year history, Frontier was recognized for having the best safety record in the industry, having carried 87 million passengers 49 billion miles with but one passenger fatality.

And its inflight service – from its extra legroom to its steak and lobster entrees --

has become a legend among veteran travelers.

Disclosure:  The writer served as Senior Director of Corporate Communications for the former Frontier and as a co-founder and Vice President of Corporate Communications for the “new” Frontier, debuted in 1994. Photographs are from his personal archives.

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