By Tracy Rucinski
CHICAGO (Reuters) -U.S. budget carrier Frontier Airlines is already making money and flying more than in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic upended air travel last year, Chief Executive Barry Biffle told Reuters ahead of the company’s Nasdaq debut on Thursday.
The airline started generating positive cash flow at the beginning of March, a key milestone for an industry that has been burning money after drastically scaling back flights last year as demand tanked.
Frontier is now benefiting from a recovery driven by domestic leisure travel, its specialty, flying more capacity this March than in the same month of 2019.
“Coming out of this, we’re in the best position we believe of anyone in the space given our concentration in the domestic leisure business and our ability to make money with low fares,” Biffle said in a virtual interview from New York.
The airline, owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners, whose managing partner is no-frills tycoon Bill Franke, is seeking to raise around $600 million from its initial public offering, its second attempt to go public.
Frontier on Wednesday priced its initial public offering of 30 million shares at $19 per share, the low end of its marketed range of $19-$21, likely underscoring the risks involved as the airline industry pulls out of its worst crisis.
Airline investments have been notoriously volatile in the past. Frontier made a previous attempt to float in 2017. The head of planemaker Boeing (NYSE:) Co said on Wednesday the pace of vaccinations hold the key to the industry’s recovery to prior levels.
Shares of Frontier opened 2% below their IPO price, valuing the company at roughly $4 billion.
Frontier has offered 15 million shares and will receive net proceeds of about $266 million, the carrier said. Existing shareholders are also selling 15 million shares in the offering.
The company will use the proceeds of the IPO to fund growth and manage debt, including repaying some of the $150 million in government loans from a COVID-19 relief package.
That will help restore its balance sheet to near pre-pandemic levels and allow it to continue growing by 10% to 15% a year, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Dempsey said.
The listing follows a stellar debut by Apollo Global Management-backed Sun Country Airlines last month.
Like other U.S. budget carriers, Frontier took on less debt and had a lower cash burn than large legacy airlines, creating a better financial position for a recovery that Biffle said is coming fast.
Frontier, with $1.25 billion of revenue in 2020, is targeting growth from all of its key U.S. cities beyond its home base Denver, where it has roughly 100 non-stop flights, including popular Florida destinations such as Orlando and Miami. It plans to open Tampa and Atlanta routes later this year.
The airline averted employee furloughs during the pandemic and was among the first to announce pilot and flight attendant hires. It expects to hire roughly 700 employees this year as it receives six new aircraft.
It hires roughly 100 employees per airplane, including mechanics and ground staff, the executives said.
Frontier has 156 aircraft on order with Airbus SE (OTC:) and the new jets will feature lighter-weight seats debuted last week to cut its fuel burn.
The airline generates 43% fuel savings compared with other U.S. airlines, making it the most fuel-efficient U.S. carrier, according to a Frontier statement last week.
“We live in Colorado,” Biffle said, adding: “ESG is real.”
Environmental groups have called into question the industry’s plans for reducing emissions and say cheap fares such as those practiced by ultra-low-cost carriers over-stimulate the demand for air travel and contribute to global warming.