Spirit Airlines Airbus A320 landing.

Spirit Airlines Airbus A319 landing.

Spirit has announced a new fee structure and it is causing some airline-hate.

For me, Spirit is the best example of a US-based ultra low cost carrier. They have perfected the art of ala cart pricing, where they offer rock bottom fares, but then have fees for everything else. I think Ryanair holds the crown currently for world-wide uber ultra low cost carrier, but Spirit is quickly catching up. Spirit’s creative fees (ie charging for carry-on bags) causes a lot of media-drama, but it works for them. Most recently they announced a change in their fee structure. If you wait until the last 24 hours before your flight to pay the bag fees, you are going to pay more, but if you pay with more than a day’s notice, your fees stay the same.

Looking at some of the headlines related to this story, you would think Spirit just stole your first born child. For example, Jaunted titled their story, “Spirit Airlines Raises Baggage Fees Again, Screws Over Passengers.” Then, last night the The Consumerist had their story titled something like “Airline charges you a fee to pay a fee,” trying to insinuate some sort of evil double fee. However, it looks like they came to their sense, since this morning, the title has been changed to, “Spirit Airlines Adds Fee For Not Paying Your Baggage Fees Far Enough In Advance.” I have to give them credit for the change.

When first looking at the fees (early vs late, domestic vs international, early vs late), it got very confusing. Luckily Spirit simplified it for me into four tiers:

1. When reserving online more than 24 hours in advance: no price changes
2. While checking online or by telephone: $5 more
3. Waiting until at the airport check-in counter or kiosk: $10 more
4. Pay at the gate: flat $45 fee

Pretty much, if you do not do things last minute, you aren’t going to be charged more. Plus, if you are part of their $9 Fare Club, you will save $10 per fee. Why wouldn’t Spirit do this? People keep flying and paying their fees and Spirit made almost $56million in bag fees alone last year just from January to September (to compare, Delta made over $730million during the same time). This is a lot of extra revenue and very tempting for airlines not only to keep fees, but look at other creative ways to add to fees. According to Dan Webb on Things in the Sky, Spirit has been able to increase their over all bag fee per passenger from $9.59 in the fourth quarter of 2009 to $16.82 for the fourth quarter of 2010.

Some are trying to lobby the government to fight the bag fees and force airlines to include your first bag in the price of your ticket. This just seems inappropriate to me. In the long run, airlines will charge more overall for your ticket and fees and fares should be market driven, not dictated by the government.

Airlines like Southwest and JetBlue still refuse to charge passengers for their first bag, providing alternative for passengers. “Southwest has a 40 year history of sharing the wealth of the maximum value we provide — whether it’s in the Customer Service of our People, the predictable efficiency of our operation, or the transparency of our pricing and low fares,” Brad Hawkins with Southwest Communications explains. ” Bags Fly Free and ticketing changes are the pillars of our fee-free stance in not nickel and diming our Customers.”

If you don’t want to pay the fee, then either pay more for a first class ticket or choose an airline that won’t charge you a fee. Even with fees, airline travel with-in the US is very affordable and it is a good thing many can take it for granted.

Image: Noel back in Zurich

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

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14 Comments
Jeff Goldman

Are you seriously uneducated as to how much damage Spirit Airlines does to real, unsuspecting passengers on a very regular basis? It’s enough that the U.S. Department of Transportation fined them $375,000 for unfair and deceptive practices just 18 months ago. The U.S. government doesn’t fine companies for being a pain in the butt. If you’d like specifics, you can download the U.S. DOT’s consent order at: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOT-OST-2009-0001-0024

Now, you may be saying, “I’m sure Spirit Airlines learned their lesson and have since corrected their problems.” Wrong! I can tell you from my own experience that their unfair and deceptive practices have not changed. Don’t believe me? Just go to Yelp! and read the reviews for Spirit Airlines. While there are some positive reviews there (about 15%), and while SOME of the negative reviews are about extra charges, many of the stories are of real harm forced upon passengers by Spirit Airlines and their incredibly uncaring staff members.

If that’s not enough evidence that you need to rethink your position on Spirit Airlines, read this for proof of just how little the CEO of Spirit cares about his passengers:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/220271

Then read this from the Denver Post:

http://www.denverpost.com/hochman/ci_15303587

Then read this, about a woman who sued Spirit Airlines in small claims court:

http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2007-07-16-spirit-suit_N.htm

Hey Jeff,

Thanks for your comment. I agree, Spirit is a very unique case and has a long history of not providing the best customer service. However, the model of providing very low prices and a lower level of service works for them — they are profitable. Is it their fault that customers have bad experiences and keep flying them?

Why do people keep going back to Spirit? I think for many, they only care about price and that is it. They find the airline that is the cheapest possible and then complain that the cheapest airline is not as good as the most expensive. If I go into McDonald’s I know the service and food quality is not going to be as good as a highly rated restaurant — why would I expect any differently with an airline? Remember, Spirit is not a charity, they are a business. If there wasn’t a market for their type of service, they wouldn’t exist.

As far as the DOT fine, many airlines are fined for a number of different reasons. Do they learn their lessons? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Honestly, I think that the DOT should raise their fines in many cases since it is not enough incentive for airlines to respond.

David

Jeff Goldman

David,

Thank you for the response. I have searched for, but not yet been able to find, the breakdown of Spirit Airlines users who are repeat customers versus those who are first-time users who are cheated once and never come back.

To carry over your McDonald’s example, of course it’s fine for a provider to offer cheap food at a cheap price. But if I walked into a McDonald’s, paid $5 for my lunch, got nothing — ZERO, no burger, no fries, no apple pie, nothing! — in return, then when I complained to the manager he laughed at me and threw me out of his restaurant, would you say, “That’s what you should expect from McDonald’s. They’re cheap, but they sure are popular!”? Of course not! You would say that is a basic breach of contract, and if it happened on a regular basis, you would explore beyond McDonald’s successful business model.

There is a very basic minimum that every U.S. business must work within to remain within the law. Spirit Airlines does NOT do that. They broke the law, or at least basic U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines, with me just 11 days ago. I was not a repeat customer, and in fact, I had never heard about them before I bought my ticket a week before the flight. I wish I would have done a little exploring about who they were before I bought the ticket, but I had the expectation that a basic contract would be fulfilled, regardless of extra bag charges.

Since then I have done a LOT of research. I have found there are many, many people out there just like me. People stranded in cities because of Spirit Airlines’ mistakes, without any help, without so much as a kind word, and without any compensation. People bumped involuntarily from flights without the compensation demanded by the Department of Transportation.

I’m not saying you’re wrong about the business model. It’s been proven repeatedly that anyone who can provide any service for less in this country can get a lot of customers, even become a leader in their industry. Yes, Spirit does that. I don’t dispute that one bit. What I am asking, David, is for you to go just a little deeper than the model, than the number of passengers, past the template that “a million customers can’t be wrong.”

I think the real question is the number of people who have tried it once and been burned versus the number who have flown Spirit Airlines once and decided they wanted to fly on Spirit again in the future. With the research I’ve done so far, I think you might be surprised at the results of that study.

Jeff Goldman

Oh, one more question, David:

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Spirit Airlines receives SEVEN TIMES the complaints of any other airline in the entire industry. Seven times! And this isn’t exactly an industry that has been known for its sterling service record over the past few decades.

Do you really believe these numbers are simply a matter of Spirit Airlines offering less service and a few more hidden fees than all of the other airlines? Perhaps there could be something just a little more malignant within those numbers when you dig a little deeper?

I’ve seen it myself, David. One experience, one realization that I was dealing with evil. Yes, evil. I am NOT being dramatic. I had over $300 stolen from me. And I now know that I am not alone. Just in the past 11 days, just by talking to people on Twitter who have said they will never give another penny to Spirit Airlines, I have found many others who have shared my experience.

This is NOT a simple matter of bad service. This is about fraud, theft and unfair and deceptive practices. Mark my words, it won’t happen quickly, but they will be shut down as a criminal enterprise at some point.

Hey Jeff,

With large companies, these things unfortunately happen. I feel I have been “robbed” by some companies and I choose not to use them anymore. Unfortunately this is a part of the society we live in and no I don’t have to like it. I am a fan of the airline biz and do try to support them when needed. However, at times they are going to screw up, sometimes pretty bad. When they do, they need to be held accountable. If an airline is embarking in illegal activities, that is very different than just providing poor customer service.

I am curious, what was your experience? If you don’t want it public, you are more than welcome to email me – [email protected]

David

Jeff Goldman

I’m happy to share my story publicly. First, thank you for asking, David!

Second, let me say, this is not just one individual occurrence. Over the past 11 days, I have already found several people who have, in the past few weeks, had the EXACT same experience as me. And my experience is even covered in the Department of Transportation’s consent order of 18 months ago, specifically telling Spirit Airlines that their procedures and policies are in violation of U.S. Code. I’ll get into the quotes from their consent order below, in relation to what they did to me.

On Sunday, March 20th, I had a flight from FLL to ATL booked for 7:45 am. I was at the Spirit Airlines ticket counter at 6:50 a.m, 55 minutes before my flight. While there were few people waiting in line, it still took ten minutes for anyone at the ticket counter to offer me assistance. Once I had someone helping me, the Spirit Airline employee said she was having trouble with the computers, they were running slow. So THEY were slowing down the process. When she finally got the computer working, she told me that my ticket had been given to someone else, that they had no other available seats all day going to Atlanta, they could not book me on another flight to Atlanta before my meeting that night. In fact, as far as they were concerned, there was nothing I could do and because I didn’t have my boarding pass 45 minutes prior to boarding, and it is their policy not to help anyone who doesn’t have their boarding pass after that 45-minute cutoff. I was told I had given up any rights to a ticket and any rights to a refund.

Now, I CERTAINLY understand that a company would demand that you present yourself at a certain time before the flight or you won’t be allowed on your flight. I think that is a logical rule. Even if that 45 minute cut off is arbitrary and unique within the airline industry, I can absolutely accept that. But it doesn’t entitle them to keep my money, giving me nothing in return. As I later learned, the U.S. Department of Transportation says that this policy, which they have been hiding behind since the morning of March 20th, is NOT legal. I quote from the DOT’s consent order of September 2009:

“It is important to note that the Department had long held that ‘it is unfair and deceptive practice under 49 U.S.C § 41712 for a carrier to declare passengers to be late check-ins when they are prevented from formally presenting their tickets at the ticket counter or boarding gate due to the length of the lines of people waiting to check-in’ … It is within the carrier’s power to modify its check-in deadlines to reflect the length of its check-in lines and duration of its check-in procedures.”

Doesn’t that quote EXACTLY describe my experience? Of course it does. Eighteen months ago they were fined $375,000 for policies such as this one. And, apparently, their policies remain in effect.

After refusing to leave the ticket counter without a resolution, a manager offered me this: if I booked a trip of much lesser value in the next five minutes, they would book that ticket for me. That alone was completely unfair because I didn’t have any other trips planned, and I didn’t even know where they flew to that might be useful to me. But wanting to leave with SOMETHING to show for my $335 dollars, I chose a ticket I didn’t really want and that I have no intention of using, worth a total of $82. And, at the end of the day, if I was forced to eat that $82 dollars, I would, and count it as a learning experience. But I’m not eating the other $253. Or, at least, if I do, I’m going to create enough education among consumers about Spirit Airlines deceptive practices that they will lose a lot more money than I did. Already, since the incident, I have convinced at least five travelers NOT to book with Spirit Airlines. I know it’s not that much, yet, but the Grand Canyon started with just a few drops of water hitting some rock.

Having said all of that, I know now that I am not the only one who has experienced this. First, the DOT would not have told Spirit Airlines they can’t do this if they hadn’t already been doing it.

Then there’s this story, which happened in February: http://ihatespiritair.blogspot.com/2011/02/first-post.html
I believe the writer of this story is trying to compile similar stories from Spirit Airlines victims, so if you wish to pursue more stories like mine and his, you can contact him through that Blogspot site.

Then there’s this story from the Denver Post. Start reading the fifth paragraph from the bottom, beginning with the words “Stephanie Brinkley.” Admittedly, this occurred before the DOT fined Spirit Airlines $375,000: http://www.denverpost.com/hochman/ci_15303587

Then there are the various people I’ve met on Twitter over the past 11 days, who don’t have their stories neatly compiled on a website, but whom I am trying to get full written explanations of what happened to them.

Thank you again, David, for asking! I very much appreciate the chance to share my story.

I think this is where one or two employees might have messed up. How has it been contacting customer service with them?

My site doesn’t deal with consumer advocacy, but I can suggest you might want to share your story with Chris Elliott (http://www.elliott.org/) and/or The Consumerist (http://consumerist.com/).

Of course I will keep this in the comments for those to see.

David

Jeff Goldman

Thank you, David.

The attitude I have received from Spirit Airlines personnel since the incident has ranged from dismissive to mocking. Their attitude is, “These are our rules, sorry you don’t like them. Bye bye.” None of them care that their rules have already been found to be unfair and deceptive by the U.S. Department of Transportation. None care that their “rules” fall so far outside of the practices established by their industry. None care that passengers routinely have the money they paid for a ticket on their airlines stolen from them.

From what I have seen of how Spirit Airlines treats their own people (see this Nightline story: http://blogs.abcnews.com/nightlinedailyline/2010/04/would-you-pay-45-for-your-carryon.html) it makes sense that they don’t give a damn about their customers. Employees aren’t treated well enough to care about the airline, the customers or even the longevity of their jobs.

I hadn’t considered contacting Chris Elliott and the Consumerist, but I will!

Thank you again for allowing me to share my experience. I don’t expect you to do anything, but I do appreciate the soap box to step onto and speak for a while.

brianna

I booked my flights on spirit airlines on November 6th of 2010. I was scheduled to fly from Boston to Miami then Miami to st thomas. the day of, April 27th of 2011, after arriving over an hour early for my flight they said the first leg to Miami was delayed until 12pm. they also informed me that had I been at the airport earlier I could have gotten on a 7:45am flight. they said they called to inform me of this change this morning but I had no missed calls or messages. THEN they went on to explain that there was NO WAY I could get to st thomas through spirit until Saturday. Four days into my vacation. the only option they offered me was to buy the next cheapest flight out to st thomas which was $500.00 on an American airlines flight. it was 3 hours later with a 4 hour layover in Miami and got me into st thomas at 9pm. (entirely missing the bruins vs flyers playoff game.) they said they would refund me for the original leg to st thomas, $175.00 though the remaining $325.00 + American airlines’ bag fee of $25.00 I’d have to eat. luckily I bought travel insurance, right?

so I booked it. now while waiting in the airport, extremely aggravated, I called into spirit for information on how to obtain the cost difference of the flight through the travel insurance. after 25 minutes on hold, the grumpy man told me I could either go back through security and down to the spirit counter or call an 800 number. I opted for the number which re-routed me back to the website which then listed the same exact 800 number! how is this possible? how does a company run in the fashion & get away with it? people need to be educated about these issues! not to mention I just read they charge for even water during the flights! hopefully I can talk my way into a refund but this abolutley obscured!

Here is my story that suggests I was lied to by 2 Spirit attendants at the ticket counter with what could be some sort of company policy. I don’t have evidence to prove that they said these things but if enough people have similar stories then it could be credible.

I missed my flight because of a number of circumstances including a “luggage drop off only” line that took 30 minutes and a security line that took 45 minutes. I then went back to the ticket desk to rebook my flight.

The attendant told me that there was no availability on a later flight that day. I asked her if I could rebook for the following day and she said that both flights had no availability. I asked her if there was a way they could route me through another airport and she said there was “nothing going in that direction”. She then gave me the number for reservations and said I would need to call them.

I left the counter and checked the spirit.com website on my phone. I searched for flights from DFW to Denver and found that one-way fares were available for all remaining flights in the next 2 days. When I went back to the ticket counter and mentioned this they said there was a “group cancellation” that had opened up the flights and they rebooked me on the next flight for a $125 change fee.

If they were being deceptive it is difficult to understand why. I paid them $223 for the round trip and the website was selling the one way fare for about $183. Were they trying to sell the $183 seat within 9 hours of departure instead of letting me complete my trip for $125? In a best case they would gain $58 assuming that they sell the seat.

Was I being conned out of my $223 airfare so they could potentially make $58? Deceiving customers for financial gain is bad business and its illegal but doing it when there is so little to gain is ridiculous.

My guess is it has more to do with the incompetence of the employee than it does with them trying to con you out of money.

David

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