I am a big fan of Spirit Airlines. They offer some of the lowest fares and push to promote their a-la-carte-style pricing. Although it seems that many customers see them as the enemy and “extorting” people out of their money, I see them as a viable, cheap option to get from point A to point B. Are they going to be like riding in business class on a Qatar A380? No… not even close. But that is not what they are about, nor should that be the expectation flying them.
Last week, I posted a letter from a reader complaining about his experience with Spirit and my hope was that people would see him as ridiculous and defend the airline. Many did, but some I saw (via the story and social media) agreed with the passenger. That surprised me.
I reached out to Paul Berry, who is Spirit’s director of communications, advertising, and brand to see what he thought. Although I was just looking for a few lines, I was very impressed with how seriously he took this complaint; he gave a very thorough reply. Below, you can see how he breaks down each topic and gives a detailed description on how Spirit operates.
Paul Berry – Spirit Airlines (Paul): The gentleman who wrote the letter, clearly didn’t book his flight on Spirit.com. I know this because when our customers book on Spirit.com, it is extremely transparent about what you get when you purchase the Bare Fare, and what you don’t. When customers book their flight on an online travel agency, they tend to love us because of our ultra-low prices, but they make the incorrect assumption airlines are a commodity (all the same).
Unfortunately, many of the online travel agency sites don’t describe the differences between airlines, and their different rules and fees. We know that our customer satisfaction rates are much higher (and in line with other airlines customer satisfaction rates) when customers book on Spirit.com. We also know that customers who book with online travel agency sites have much lower customer satisfaction, because it’s usually the first time flier on Spirit and they don’t receive the necessary education about how to fly Spirit.
We can’t force the online travel agents to provide this necessary education. But we can make the information available on Spirit.com and make it as transparent as possible. In this case, this customer should be more upset at his online travel agency for not being transparent with him.
Let me address this customers specific complaints individually:
SPIRIT’S A LA CART SYSTEM IS EXTORTION
Angry Passenger X (Angry): I wanted to share with you the horrible experience I had with your airline and why I will never be flying Spirit again no matter how low your fares are. First the extortion scheme, or as you call it the a la cart system. Now I understand looking at your business model that you are a discount airline and need to charge extra to compete with the big guys. That being said, my issue is with the lack of upfront disclosure on your process and policies at the time of booking. Again what was I going to do, I had no other options and no time to make other arrangements. So you say a la cart, I say extortion scam.
Paul: Nothing could be further than the truth. In fact, the way some airlines bundle their product offerings with an all-inclusive price is closer to extortion, because you have no way to opt out of items you don’t want or need. It’s either take it, or don’t fly. At Spirit you get to decide what you are charged for, and what you are not. We begin with a seat and get you from point A to point B for the lowest price in the industry. If you don’t need anything else, you can fly to a lot of places for a lot less than the cost of driving. This gives the customer control of which frills they want to purchase, and which frills they can do without.
OPTIONAL BAGGAGE COSTS
Angry: Having never flown your airline before I was quite shocked when I was asked to pay to carry on a bag as I have never been charged for this before. But it was the day before my flight, what could I do? …I had no other options and no time to make other arrangements. So you say a la cart, I say extortion scam.
Paul: All airlines charge for checked and carry-on bags. If you fly an airline that claims ’œYou get two checked bags for free,’ it’s really a lie because they include the costs and profit for carrying two checked bags for each customer on the flight. So if you don’t check a bag on that airline, you’re still paying for two checked bags. All airlines also have absolute costs that come with carryon bags in the overhead bin. There are weight and time costs ’“ carry-on bags are second only to weather for causing delays. Most airlines just include those costs for carry-ons in the ticket, so everyone pays for a carry-on ’“ even if you don’t bring one. What’s worse, if you’re one of the last people on the plane and all the overhead bin space is taken with oversized carry-ons, your carry-on bag must be checked ’“ even though you paid (in your all-inclusive price) for that space. Do you think the airline will refund the money they charged you for that space? I don’t think so.
At Spirit, we only charge you for the bags that you wish to bring. We know that 21% of passengers don’t bring a checked bag. We feel they shouldn’t have to pay for something they don’t need. When you book on Spirit.com, there are multiple opportunities for customers to add bags (the lowest price is during online booking) or decline that you need bags. If somebody declines adding bags then they must acknowledge they do not need bags, and if they add them later, it will cost more. It doesn’t get more transparent than that. Also, if you pay for a carry-on at Spirit we guarantee that you will have bin space, because we also allow you to be the first to board the aircraft, at no extra charge.
PAYING FOR SEAT ASSGINMENTS
Angry: “Next I had to pay for our seats’¦.wait I had already paid for our seats, but not if I wanted to sit by my fiancee her on her birthday trip I would have to pay extra to do so to avoid randomly seated.”
Paul: Seats are a touchy subject for all air travel consumers. Many people have their preferences (aisle or window), and if people are flying together the middle seat is more valuable. The fact or the matter is seat assignments are very difficult to manage and very costly for airlines. So much so, there are some airlines that don’t have any seat assignments and you have to fight for your seat, or you pay more to get on the plane early, to get the best choice of seats. Some airlines build in the costs for seat assignments into the all-inclusive ticket, then charge you more if you wish to have more leg room, or an aisle or window seat.
At Spirit, if you don’t care where you sit and allow us to choose your seat, you’re saving us a lot of money and therefore you’ll save even more money on your flight. We’ll guarantee you’ll get a seat, but we won’t charge you extra. If you find a certain seat more valuable, then many are willing to pay more for that seat. It should be noted, our seat selections are between $5 – $15, much less than what other airlines charge. To upgrade seats on other airlines can cost as much as $50. One thing we offer at Spirit that you can’t get on others airlines is our Big Front Seat product. This is a larger size seat (about the same size you would find in a first class cabin on other airlines), and has more leg room. We hear all the time this is the best seat upgrade available in the industry.
Now if you’re traveling as a couple or a family traveling with small children, we do offer the ability to purchase seats which will guarantee the companions sit together. But we understand that is more expensive. So we do everything we can to assign seats to people with the same name as close together as possible, at no extra charge. If a group of friends, a couple, or family is flying together and they didn’t purchase seats, all they have to do is tell the customer service agent at the counter or gate that they are traveling together and would like to sit together. The Spirit agents will do everything they can to sit people together. If that doesn’t work, all you need to do is tell your flight attendant and they can work their magic once people are on the plane. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll be able to sit together, but it’s a much less expensive option. Again, if sitting together is of value to you, then paying a little extra is worth it.
Angry: “First my return flight was pushed up about 3 hours. Well this conflicted with a very important appointment I had set in Chicago. The day of my flight my departing time was pushed back, also causing me to reschedule with little heads up. I am sure that with you being a CEO you are a very busy man and can understand how inconvenient it is to have pre set appointments changed at the last minute.”
Paul: I’m not sure what he means when he says his flight was pushed up (earlier) three hours. We don’t do that. There may be situations where we’ll move a flight up ten minutes because most of the people have been boarded. Customers are required to be at the gate 15 minutes before departure. But if a customer hasn’t checked-in within 10 minutes of departure, and we haven’t heard that they are caught in security or delayed another way inside the airport, we may give that seat to a standby passenger. Once the flight is full with checked in and standby passengers, we will leave, even up to 10 minutes early. Now, if he means that we pushed the flight back 3 hours, that could have been for any other number of reasons. Anytime you are dealing with large machines, people, and weather, you will have delays. I find it interesting he blames the delay on Spirit, but most delays are because of weather, Air Traffic Control stops, or security issues. This customer also speaks as if he’s the only one inconvenienced by the delay and wanted special treatment that other customers were not requesting. Other customers, and the crew are inconvenienced as well any time there is a delay. We don’t want delays or flight cancellations to happen, but they do ’“ for every airline.
SPIRIT’S CUSTOMER SERVICE
Angry: Your phone team (I will not call them customer service as they absolutely did not service their customer) was abysmal on top of that. They offered to move me to the next flight, well that went from 3PM to 12AM the next day, again not a viable solution as I had to work hence my evening flight to get me home in time. Then they offered to cancel my flight, and while this was by far the best option given to me… it would have cost me and extra $1400 to book with a different airline as it was just hours before my flight time. Again I felt extorted, terms were set and agreed upon when I purchased the ticket, your company changed them, and I was left to figure it out. Your supervisor team refused to even offer any sort of comp, not a free drink, not a free checked bag, not a big seat upgrade, nothing! They sounded very unsympathetic and melancholy as they read their scripted replies, ’œSir we do understand and apologize for the inconvenience, however blah blah blah we are gonna screw you and what are you gonna do about it because you are stuck blah blah blah.’
Paul: Again, he wanted special treatment because of a weather delay (not within our control). He makes it pretty clear we offered him options, but he didn’t like any of them. Sometimes customers feel they are owed something even when the airline doesn’t do anything wrong. Some airlines might accommodate this customer, just to get them out of their hair. But that practice just leads to higher priced fares for everyone. If we do indeed do something wrong, we will make it right. But if it’s something that is out of our control, we’re not going to accommodate a customer just because they raise their voice or make threats.
MAINTENANCE & PILOT TRAINING
Angry: I was now wondering where else your airline had chosen to cut costs, maybe the building and maintenance of the plane, or the training of the pilots.
Paul: Simple and cheap shot, but again nothing could be further from the truth. We are held to the same safety and training standards as every other airline.
OTHER AIRLINE OPTIONS
Angry: You can rest assured that I will be posting this email to every travel blog, review site, airline agent, Facebook, twitter and wherever else I can inform the masses about your company’s despicable treatment of its paying customers… Bottom line Mr. Baldanza is that in a competitive marketplace you need to take care of your customers. I have flown many airlines such as Alaska, United, and Southwest multiple times and although flight times have changed with them, they have always taken care of me somehow. Upon reading your reviews and numerous complaints I can clearly see that you do not… I would not fly on Spirit again if it was free. I am writing you this to open your eyes and hope that you will change your policies, or at least start to do the right thing and disclose your misleading practices to your customers before they are stuck like I was.
Paul: Clearly we’re doing something right. We’re the fastest growing airline and the most profitable airline in the United States. Our planes are among the most full in the industry. If we didn’t take care of our customers, we wouldn’t be doing so well. The fact of the matter is, our airline isn’t for everyone. If there are certain things you want ’“ and you’ve been brainwashed to believe those things are free on other airlines ’“ then maybe you should pay the higher ticket cost and fly them.
But if you want to enjoy the convenience of air travel and pay the lowest possible airfare so you can have more money to spend when you get to your destination, then Spirit is absolutely the airline for you, and we’ll take care of our customers by delivering what they want most ’“ cheap fares.
Spirit is a solid option here in KC. And I LOOVE that big front seat! No joke about the note above, it is undeniably the best upgrade in the US.
JL | AirlineReporter
While I agree with everything Mr. Berry has to say, I do have one observation.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the base fare on Spirit come with similar options as most other airlines (free carry-on bag, free seat assignment for regular coach seats, etc.) and the offer a discount to passengers who do not want to have a carry on bag and/or don’t care where they sit? Especially since 79% of the passengers do have carry-on bags, shouldn’t this be the default option?
Switching to this pricing scheme would allow the consumer to more easily compare prices of equal value trips (but perhaps Spirit doesn’t want this as their fares won’t look so great). Secondly, instead of pissing people of with “surprise add-on fares”, you’d be making a certain segment of the flying public happier when they discover their fare is even lower when the forgo options that are included in the price of the ticket for other airlines.
Hey Richard, I have a few thoughts on this. First, many airlines have been moving into this direction, so it will likely become more common. Secondly, airlines aren’t really in the biz to help you to decide to go elsewhere. Last, I am always confused when so many of our goods have a “sexy” low price, that get your attention, and you pay more for what you want (new cars, computers, cruises, hotels, etc), but when an airline does it, it is “extortion.”
David | AirlineReporter I
The problem with the analogy with cars, cruises, etc. is that basically all the companies in these fields operate the same way so the average consumer expects the added fees. But Spirit’s methods make it an outlier, at least in the US at the present time.
I believe that there are ancillary reasons for not using the “charge first-refund later” model. Each credit card transaction, including refunds, cost the merchant money. In addition, the airline would incur additional labor cost to refund the money, and it would likeley would add material time to the check-in or boarding process, depending on where it would take place. Spirit’s processes are not exclusively related to cost, part of their model includes a faster turn time on the ground: Less time cleaning the plane because fewer people are eating, streamlined boarding process by way of limited carry-on bags, etc. A faster turn limits labor and fees assoiciated with keeping the plane on the ground as well as putting it back into revenue service faster.
Sorry Robb, but that doesn’t “fly” either. When Spirit charges for “extras”, they don’t charge your credit card separately, it’s all one transaction. Similarly, the “credits” would be calculated at the time of ticket purchase as well, so there would only be one transaction. If you changed your mind later and wanted to add a “perk”, you’d be charged the amount of the perk plus a penalty that would cover any other expenses such as credit card transaction fees.
As to your other point, I’m not sure that changing from fees to discounts would impact turn-around time that much, especially since Mr. Berry said that 79% of the passengers do have a carry-on bag. On a side note, it’s kind of interesting that some of his remarks are obviously pointed at Southwest, but my understanding is that one reason Southwest is able to turn around its planes in half the time of the average airline is the use of “cattle call” seating.
You make a good point about it not always being this way and the public might not know. However, I don’t see Spirit as a total outlier here.
Southwest and jetBlue are the only US airlines that don’t charge for bags. Most airlines have a “buy-on-board,” option of some sort (food). Many, you have the option to pay for WiFi, boarding earlier, lounge access, etc. Spirit and Allegiant, you have to pay for bags in the bin. I agree, that it is not as common, but I think it is becoming more common.
Even with Southwest and jetBlue having “free bags,” there is still a cost for them to haul them, which is part of your ticket price.
I think a BIG problem is that airlines sold this all wrong when they first started. It was sold as “now you have to pay extra fees,” where it should have been marketed, “now you don’t have to pay for your bags, if you don’t have any.” I know they tried, but that is not as sexy of a headline, and the whole “what is X airline charging you for now, find out on our 6pm broadcast,” works much better.
I think Spirit has done the best job at trying to sell the whole “you only pay for what you need,” but it was late to the game and no one is listening.
David | AirlineReporter
Air Canada tried this years ago with bad results. The amount they refunded was low (say $10 back for no checked bags) so I doubt people took advantage. It’s kinda like new home buying these days: low price to get you to visit then tack on the options. Marketing 101 I’m afraid.
I have to admit I kinda like Frontiers approach better with the nicer option up front for only a little more, the up sell is more palatable to me than the a la cart of Spirit.
I also think jetBlue has taken an interesting approach to bundling the a la cart options. Airlines will keep experimenting and the dollar will be the voting tool.
David | AirlineReporter
I have never flown Spirit and I doubt that I will. But, I found Mr. Berry’s answers up front and to the point. The thing to be taken away from his response is a simple one, we have a choice. The letter writer’s option to never fly Spirit again is his choice. One that he had when he chose to fly Spirit in the first place. I went to spirit.com to see if it was as transparent as Mr. Berry said and indeed it was. So, Mr. Berry, while you won’t see me on one of your flights, I admire your candor in responding to the letter writer.
Totally agree with you Bruce — but the problem is what I tried to get to in my comic story (and used the photos) is that many people yell and scream they will never fly an ULCC airline again, but when it goes down to saving $50 — they do. And then complain all over again.
Also agree, that I was beyond impressed with Paul’s honest replies.
The biggest voice that you can have is with your wallet.
David | AirlineReporter
The first time you fly with Spirit, their pricing menu is a bit daunting. I fly to Colombia and take a lot of luggage, so I ended up paying just as much for Spirit as with anyone else. But for someone with no luggage, it’s a different story. I won’t fly Spirit again-just not for me-, but my brother does all the time. Then again, he flies with no luggage, just a quick cheap ride.
I flew Spirit once, from FLL to MCO and only paid $19.38 all in. I had to go pick up a car in Ocala and drive it back to South Florida. I used Shuttle services to get to FLL and from MCO to Ocala. Each shuttle cost more than my flight. The breakdown was Fare-$.01, fuel & taxes-$19.37. If I needed to bring luggage, I would have used WN and flown into TPA as it would have been cheaper that way.
My point, do your research, compare apples to oranges to pears, etc… Know what you will be bringing with you and know you get what you pay for. If you have ever flown domestically in Asia, you will see that 28″ is a luxury as many Domestic carriers in Asia have 26-27″ between seats.
”It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well
to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”
“• John Ruskin
1819 – 1900
Relevant quote for sure. I have heard a lot of stories from passengers trying to fly Allegient, where it is by far the cheapest, but only has a few flights per week on their 757s to Hawaii. Some maintenance or crew issue happens wit the 757, there are no back ups and days of a trip can be lost.
I also feel that I have had to learn this lesson with age. In my younger years, I did whatever I could to fly the cheapest possible. Slam me into a 28″ pitch seat, no food, treat me like crap and save $25 — DEAL! Now, I am willing to pay more to get what I want out of an airline.
David | AirlineReporter
IMO Mister Angry Flyer overstated his case. (It sort of goes with angry, no?) At most, Mister Angry has two legitimate questions. Again IMO, the gentleman from Spirit did a masterful job of addressing all of Mister Angry’s issues and debunked all. Lastly, still IMO, Spirit has a legitimate place in the industry. While the ULCC model is not my cup of tea, they do provide a legitimate, valuable service within their targeted markets and I’m sure that they will remain for many years. As for Mister Angry, I think David nailed it: Angry really was expecting Qatar A380-like services and he did not receive them. Weeping into the wine glass will not help his cause. -C.
Probably more like “weeping on the $5 can of Coke,” but yea 🙂
David | AirlineReporter
I read your article with interest. I have never flown Spirit and dont really intend to ( I generally fly F class on DL ) but out of sheer curriosity (my BF wants to fly THEM) I went on their website and booked a r/t TPA-LAS departing on a Tuesday in January and returning that same Thursday. Mid week. First, their website does in fact explain their ancillary charges which is good. Second…took me about 25 minutes..not so good. and Third…including the fee for carry-on and seat selection…I found it pricey. Very pricey. So I went to Southwest.com, booked the same itin only nonstops this time and it was $65.00 per person (roughly) less expensive. Interesting. Great article, thanks very much. I think I will be sticking with DL and “squandering ” my hard earned bucks for First Class on long flights. ( I have a disablity issue that makes F really neccesary on trips over a couple hours ). Cheers and thanks again !
And you are a smart consumer :). Weird to me that someone will research the hell out of some new $500 gadget, checking prices, looking at review, before deciding which one they want. Then spend the same amount on an airline ticket and don’t really do any research.
Also, since you brought up flying with a disability, I would love to get your thoughts on this story we recently did: https://www.airlinereporter.com/2015/09/not-accessible-board-lavatories-flying-disabled/
David | AirlineReporter
Cheers to Mr. Berry for the detailed response and the excellent explanation, and cheers to Mr. Baldanza (the CEO) for not shying away from what his airline is.
Moreso than any other major US-based airline, Spirit really is the greyhound of the sky… and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s obviously room for a few ULCC’s in the market, as evidenced by Spirit’s success. I also have to wonder how many of these angry fliers will inch their way back over to Spirit when they find themselves looking for a super-cheap flight – especially once the initial shock and outrage have worn off and the customer knows what to expect.
I think that is the big key. For people to realize that not all airlines are the same. Some (very few) have all business class. You will pay more, and you will get more. Others allow you to fly from A to B for SUPER cheap. It has always been curious to me that people can understand “you get what you pay for,” with so many other consumer products, but it becomes lost with airlines.
Not to over link it, but your last comment goes well with my comic from years ago: https://www.airlinereporter.com/2011/04/the-five-stages-of-flying-an-ultra-low-cost-carrier-epic-comic-style/
David | AirlineReporter
You are nothing more than a paid shill for the airlines. Spirit’s passengers are deprived of many of the basic entitlements that passengers in a civilized country deserve. Imagine if you had to pay for tap water, spoon and printed bill at a restaurant? Every service has basic needs. And this shouldn’t be defined by the law. Spirit clearly goes too far. We are OK with a la carte pricing for tangible add-on features. But the basic overhead (e.g., call center, check-in and baggage handling support) should be included, ULCC or not. Do low cost supermarkets have terrible, rude service with expired products? No. And that’s not driven by regulatory scrutiny. Spirit’s CEO cites passenger growth, but this is short lived, especially because it is coupled with incremental profit growth (ie making more off each unsuspecting passenger). Spirit can churn through new passengers for a few years, but our country is rapidly gaining a collective memory and becoming wealthier and digital savvy. Tech? Hipster? Caveat emptor? This is the new America. Your ignorance–and inability to understand these basic truths and lack of other marketable skills–clearly blinds you to this distinction, which, if your article had addressed meaningfully, would give your blog and voice significantly more value, to both corporate and consumer, than an impression-whoring shill. What is more alarming is that you make your living without disclaiming the obvious conflicts of interest you have with these airlines, of which this post is damning evidence. You are a recent, unethical and short lived medium for corporate advertising. Shame on you, and shame on Spirit.
Thanks “Tom” for sharing your thoughts. I am going to try to talk to some of your points, but I am guessing it won’t matter, since you used an obvious fake email address (guessing your IP is also fake) and you probably won’t see this.
It is sad that when someone tries to defend an airline they automatically become a “whoring shill.”
Although I have been given quite a bit of free travel, from airlines, to write up stories (which is always disclosed), I have never received anything free from or been paid by Spirit.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of voices out there that hate on airlines and some sell themselves as “consumer advocates.” There are very few voices that try to show the other side. AirlineReporter is pretty straight forward about being fans of airlines.
No airline is denying you basic needs. You do not need a soda for a three hour flight. You do not need free space to put your bags. You are paying to be taken from point A to point B at a basic level, then no matter if you do a la carte or you just pay for a first class ticket — you are paying for those additions.
Airlines aren’t operating in a vacuum here. The reason why these ULCC airlines (Spirit, Allegiant and now Frontier, in the US) are doing so well, is because the consumer is voting with their wallets. My bet is we will see ULCC grow in the US and around the world, due to passenger demand.
Finally, to your point with low cost super markets… don’t know if you have a Grocery Outlet where you live, but it is a very different experience than Whole Foods. The ones that I have been to have cheap as hell prices, but some things are expired, it is not clean, and the staff does not provide high-end customer service. You get what you pay for.
Wow that was long. I probably should hit submit before AirlineReporter goes out of business!
David | AirlineReporter
Without a doubt, the biggest problem Spirit has with customer (dis)satisfaction is that some % of their customers buying tickets NOT from spirit.com don’t have a reasonable idea of what the additional fees are… and the unbundled fares are SO different from the norm here in the US that anyone booking on an OTA probably has no idea what they’re actually buying.
I think Spirit would be well-served to consider dropping the OTAs from their distribution until they can provide consumers with the same level of transparency of their fees that spirit.com provides.
I am actually going to try to follow up with Expedia and find out why they handle the a la cart pricing the way that they do and see what might be in store for the future. It doesn’t seem to serve OTA to upset the customer and have them only buy from the airline’s website.
David | AirlineReporter
To beat this dead horse one more time – There’s an interesting article at the Air Transport World blog that is very much related to this discussion.
“The notion that ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines isn”t taking passengers away from major US airlines and isn”t in direct competition with thempromulgated by both Spirit and major US carriers in the pastis no longer germane. American Airlines president Scott Kirby has made clear that American considers Spirit a very serious competitor and, in fact, is planning to roll out a new fare model next year primarily to enable it to better compete against Spirit and other US ULCCs.”
So, angry “Tom’s” can wail and gnash their teeth as much as they want, but Spirit is obviously doing something right.
AA flyers are all waiting nervously to see what the rollout of these “ultra-low fares” are going to be about, and that points to the issue that Spirit may be having. For a couple of decades, the flying public has gotten used to traveling by air a certain way. Then along comes Southwest, and you’d think the sky was falling. Spirit takes budget travel to a whole new level in the US, but folks are stuck in their ways.
A smart consumer will shop around and pick what’s best for them. I personally won’t be in a Spirit plane anytime soon, but I can see how someone who just want basic A-to-B transportation AND knows how the “Bare Fare” works will enjoy their experience (or at least not hate it).
John | AirlineReporter
P.S. DPB is awesome (inside joke).