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 “You 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, “Sir 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.