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Frontier Airlines CEO on the travel industry recovery

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Barry Biffle, Frontier Airlines CEO, joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the holiday travel season and the industry's recovery.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: The great holiday travel season is upon us. I want to give you the latest TSA numbers. Yesterday, two million people went through TSA checkpoints at the nation's airports. Two years ago in 2019 before the COVID lockdowns, it was 2.4 million. We've seen this kind of number, very close to what it had been two years ago, for the last several weeks. And the airlines are telling us that their leisure demand is essentially back to 2019 levels.

But let's talk to the CEO from one of those airlines. Barry Biffle is CEO at Frontier Airlines. And, first, wishing you the easiest of holiday travel seasons, because I know a lot of people are counting on getting to where they're going. What are your projections? For Frontier, are you at 80% of 2019 levels or are you at 100% now because so many people are traveling again?

BARRY BIFFLE: So we expect to have similar loads to what we had in 2019 when we get to the latter part of the holiday. And so we expect to have planes be full. And our capacity is slightly above what we had in 2019, so we should exceed passenger levels overall. But we're really excited about the Thanksgiving holidays, and I hope everybody is excited to see their friends and family. And based on the numbers like you were just saying, it looks like a lot of people are going to be joining their friends and family for the first time, possibly, since COVID started.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Yeah, and you've been busy during the COVID pandemic. You've been kicking some tires and putting some cash down to buy some planes. You just put in an order for 91-- it's the Airbus A321 Neo. But you're all Airbus, aren't you, at Frontier? And that's on top of, I think you're going to have when all is said and done, close to 240 new aircraft.

You're tripling the size of your fleet over the next eight years. Is that aggressive foreign airline to do this kind of work and the plans that you have?

BARRY BIFFLE: Well, look, obviously, it shows our optimism in our business. We wouldn't triple the size if we didn't believe in the fundamentals. Look, Frontier has the lowest cost position. This order, when these aircraft also enable us to continue to be America's greenest airline with almost 120 miles per gallon per seat. You know, that compares to 63 miles per gallon with some of the big airlines in the US.

So the innovation around fuel savings and CO2 emissions are great for the planet. But our low fares are great for consumers. And there seems to be insatiable demand for low fares. And we think that we'll be there to provide it for years to come.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What about staffing? I know some of the legacy carriers have had issues because so many people took early retirement. When you triple the size of an airline, you need more people. What do you think are the chances are you're going to get the people you want in time to follow through with the expansion?

BARRY BIFFLE: Well, look, what we're seeing is the incentives to not work kind of went away-- those federal plus-ups for the unemployment. As that went away, we're seeing a lot of people come back to the workforce. And we're also just seeing, you know, things just overall normalize. You know, we've got the vaccinations and now the boosters.

And I think when we round the clock into 2022, I think you just look at the fact that we've got the pill coming in to treat COVID-19 from a therapeutic perspective, and I think that's going to get the last numbers of people that are still sitting at home-- you know, some people are still out of the workforce because they're nervous. But the truth is I think there's going to be less and less concerns as we move to the next couple of months, especially once we get the approval for the therapeutics.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Airlines for America will appreciate this when I point out that there have been no reported super-spreader events on any airline. The filtration systems on the planes-- I mean, when the pandemic lockdowns began, we talked a lot about this-- the Hepa filters and all of that. But where I'm going with this are the masks.

I know that a lot of people and CEOs at airlines wish the mask mandate would go away. TSA is going to reexamine this January 18. Do you have any insight about what they might do? I mean, the concern over the spike in cases sure sounds like they're going to extend it. Can you share with us any discussions that you're hearing about what might happen?

BARRY BIFFLE: Look, I don't know what they'll decide. But I think if you have continued high cases and, more importantly, continued high hospitalizations, I suspect that they'll keep it in place. Do we need it a couple more months? Maybe. I think, again, I'll go back to the therapeutic.

If this truly reduces hospitalizations and deaths by 90%, then by probably February, March, you're going to have a game-changer-- should be good for travel, should be good for the overall economy. But yeah, you probably get away from needing masks if that is successful. So maybe they extend it, but I doubt they'll want to extend it-- it's not going to be six months or 12 months, I wouldn't think.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You know, we didn't even get into your earnings report. I should point out that your revenue is just about what it had been for the same quarter in 2019. Have you had a chance to exhale yet? Or is it still, you know, you're the CEO, thousands of people are counting on you just as employees, multiply that by 10 with the passengers-- are you still-- is it white knuckling through this pandemic still?

BARRY BIFFLE: Well, it's definitely been a stressful roller coaster as we've gone through the last couple of years. And it's gone on now-- we're going to go into 2022, our third official year that you've been messing with this. But I think you truly are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

I think it's great to see the volumes of passengers back. We're really excited about the holiday season. And I think when you look forward as we move into Q1, you've got the office reopenings, you've got kind of things getting back to normal. And so, yes, I think everyone's tired. We're all stressed.

I think there's plenty of businesses like ours, in the travel space especially, that have been stressed. But you can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. And I think that, you know, things will be back to normal in the not so distant future.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Barry, I think many of us look forward to the day when we bring people like you on the program and we're talking about, why doesn't the seat recline more, or why are the snacks getting smaller and smaller-- the peanuts, or if you can even give peanuts in this era-- pretzels. We'll go with the pretzels. But wishing you and your team at Frontier a very hassle-free holiday travel season. Barry Biffle, Frontier Airlines CEO, thank you for joining us.