Who doesn’t like low prices? I know I do. But I also know with low prices, there is probably a “catch,” or I might not get the same experience as if I paid more elsewhere. This concept seems to be pretty simple to understand (the whole “you get what you paid for”), but many it all goes out the window when you start flying.

There are many passengers out there who are not fans of super cheap airlines (and ala cart) airlines, like Spirit and Allegiant. These are probably two of the most aggressive ultra low cost carriers and I think this post speaks to why these airlines can be so successful. These are the airlines who provide rock bottom prices and the ability to pay more for the services you want/need. A few years back (first published in April 2011),  my creative side decided to make a little comic strip showing the five stages of flying an ultra low cost carrier. It has been of my all time favorite stories, because it rings true so often. I am guessing that these five stages might seem pretty familiar to many of you!

Stage One: The Search

There are many out there who could care less about what airline they fly on — all they care about is price. They remember flying from Los Angeles to Topeka in 1996 for $79.00 round trip and refuse to pay more than that ever again. They will check every airline site possible, spending hours, maybe even days trying to find the best deal possible. Then, amazingly they find one airline with prices way less than their competitors. Why is it so much cheaper? Who the heck cares… for that price, you are willing to fly in a cardboard box! After getting your ticket, you gloat to as many as you can on how much you saved. You title yourself the “Airline Fare Master.” Oh… just wait my friend.

Stage Two: Checking In and Getting Shocked

While basking in your great deal, you were blind to the fact that the airline’s website clearly states there are bag and other fees. When getting to the airport, you feel you have been tricked, “How dare they charge me for my bag!” You feel it appropriate to blame the gate agent for your mistake. That makes sense right?

Then you feel relieved a bit when you start to do the math in your head. You are okay. Even with these bag fees, your amazing deal is still beating the next cheapest priced airline. But you start second guessing your choice.

BONUS: I Did the Spirit Airlines Bare Fare — For Science!

Stage Three: I have to pay for what?

Once on board, you realize your legroom isn’t too great. Your seat might not recline and there is no in-flight entertainment. And what is this? You have to pay for food and drinks? The outrage! While you are certain you have reached the fifth level of hell, you continue to tell yourself about your amazing deal you got. I mean, the flight is only a few hours, right? It is easy to forget you told yourself you were willing to fly in a cardboard box for that price.

BONUS: Flying on an Allegiant MD-83

Stage Four: Swearing the airline off forever

Once arriving, you make it clear to everyone that you did not have a good flight. “Well, I have never been treated so poorly in my life, they are the worst airline ever.” You state you would have been better taking a covered wagon in the middle of winter (who cares it would have taken you six months and you probably would have died). You swear up and down that you will never, ever (and omg I mean EVER) fly that horrid airline again.

BONUS: Spirit Airlines Explains the Bare Fare Model

Stage Five: And repeat

The next time you fly, you are back to searching for the best deal. You remember only paying $79.00 this one time and you have it in your mind you aren’t going to pay a penny more. “Why the heck are airline tickets so expensive?” Then you find it. That gem among the rough. Tickets for $79.00. Boo ya! Now time to repeat the cycle.


Ultra low cost carriers can be a great option. They can provide you fast transportation, the cheapest way possible. If you only care about getting your body from one place to another, without frills or high expectation of service, you cannot beat an ultra low-cost carrier. If you need a few more options, you can likely get them, it will just cost you a bit more. It is about being an informed customer and doing the math to make sure you are choosing the right airline.

I don’t walk into McDonald’s expecting a delicious meal. I expect to get a cheap meal and mediocre service. Why would a passenger pay for an ultra low cost airline and expect an Etihad Airways level of service? I am not sure, but as long as people keep demanding the lowest fares possible with no regard to service, more airlines will step up and accommodate. In the end, you do have some control with the level of service you receive while flying — using your pocket book.

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: david@airlinereporter.com

Piloting Aeromexico’s Boeing 787 Simulator…With One Engine

Well done, sir. Oh so well done.

Bravo. Oh so funny. Oh so true.

I haven’t flown a low cost airline since the 80’s on People’s Express. You paid for your ticket while you were sitting in your seat. I think we only flew it once EWR to MCO but it was quite an experience. Even had to fly out of a different terminal in Newark. You paid for everything (just like today ha ha ha).

People Express was ahead (or behind) of their time. Paying on board today could be very interesting. Maybe have it like a gamble and you spin a wheel to find out your cost.


Jeff Goldman


You are a better reporter than this. Please do your homework in the future.

You make a deep, deep mistake when you paint the many thousands of people who complain about one particular airline with too broad a brush. Yes, it is true that many complainers are simply frustrated with rude service, semi-hidden fees and constantly delayed flights.

But there are others who have been the victim of “unfair and deceptive practices” as defined by and charged by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For those who are willing to put up with a little inconvenience to save a few dollars, I wish them well. But you shame yourself when you don’t take the time to learn that some “complainers” are more concerned with the violation of basic business ethics than a rude flight attendant.

If you really do care to educate yourself this matter, you should start with the U.S. DOT’s consent order from 18 months ago: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOT-OST-2009-0001-0024

Then do a just a tiny bit more digging and you’ll find that the very unfair and deceptive practices they were fined for just 18 months ago persist to this day.

I know you’re better than this, David. Get it right in the future.

Of course Jeff. There are legacy carriers and even ones that are very well known for their service who are going to screw up and cause problems. This is more of a showing about people who don’t have anything large go wrong, but just complain about receiving a lower level of service. For most, this rings very true.


Trying to refute a generalization with a specific examples just proves there are exceptions, not that the generalization isn’t true. You’re better than this, Jeff. Get it right in the future.

Jeff Goldman

I’m sorry, Dan, would you like enough specific examples to prove a trend? Did you not bother to download the document I referenced in my note above? I would ask that you do your homework before publicly embarrassing yourself, Dan. Once again, if you care to have an actual adult discussion, begin here with the U.S. DOT finding enough proof of their breaking industry rules to fine Spirit Airlines for repeatedly engaging in “unfair and deceptive practices.” Do you believe that the U.S. DOT is just refuting a generalization? Really, read it before responding. If you actually do, you will be surprised at what you learn:


Then, if you’d like more documentation, check the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Of ALL of the U.S. airlines flying today, INCLUDING other budget carriers, why do you think it could be that Spirit Airlines has a complaint rate MORE THAN SEVEN TIMES any other airline? Do you believe that there are just seven times the exceptions on Spirit Airlines as on any other airline, Dan?

Seriously, Dan, I have already provided most of the information you need to have an informed discussion. And I could provide further documentation if I felt you were trying to do anything other than wade into a topic you haven’t researched. After you do the research, if you need further documentation, let me know. Show me that YOU are better than that, Dan …

Just because you say I’m publicly embarrassed doesn’t make it so. Just like you pointing to one airline, Spirit, and saying that the generalization made in the original article is somehow invalidated because one airline is bad. My ENTIRE, very curt previous post was to address the fact that you’re pointing to small examples (a single airline is a small example in a sea of airlines) and trying to disprove a generalization. Basically proving that you don’t understand the simple concept that exceptions don’t disprove a generalization that is true (or even conjecture). It’s like you read what I said and tried to prove it wrong by doing EXACTLY the wrong thing. Brilliant.

Your bias and anger blind you.

Jeff Goldman

Ah! My apologies, Dan. We were on two completely different pages here. If our disagreement is that you think I was painting ALL discount airlines with a broad brush, then let me be clear: I was only talking about Spirit. And in fact, I am the first to agree that Spirit is completely different than any other airline, or any other budget airline.

I thought when you mentioned generalities you were saying that I was taking one episode on Spirit and expanding that to damn that whole airline. I wasn’t and I have proof. To say that was my point would have been ignorant. However, to say that you can’t holds Spirit’s actions against other airlines is something I would completely agree with. I have flown many budget airlines and I have no complaint with any of them. Nor did I mean to imply that I did in anything I have written on this site.

There is context to what I wrote that you probably missed. In the past, on this site, David and I have discussed Spirit Airlines, and this article was referenced on Twitter as a defense of Spirit. While I don’t forgive the actions of Spirit, I certainly don’t have any complaint with any other airlines. If you thought that was my point, I hope I have cleared that up.

I switched to United mainly for Economy Plus leg room. Fortunately they matched my status with AA so I don’t pay for bags, I get to go through the First class security line when available and usually get to board Group 1. I usually compare their price against what the other low prices are but they are usually within $0-$50 of what Southwest charges. To me its totally worth it. I get an assigned seat and often times get to fly a wide body plane. I guess what I am saying is, you get what you pay for.

Jeff Goldman

Thank you for your clarification, David. It is appreciated. As an experienced business traveler, I have had minor problems of some sort on just about every airline. Those I don’t complain about. I just chalk it up to the things that happen in travel and in business. I have only encountered ONE airline — Spirit Airlines — that so repeatedly, gleefully and unapologetically flaunts the regulations laid down by the DOT.

I take deep offense at anyone who would equate a group of people pointing out a business that repeatedly breaks the regulations of their industry to someone complaining about not having enough leg room. But I do appreciate you clarifying your article here.

Jeff Goldman

UPDATE: After a month of fighting Spirit Airlines at every level I could (through my credit card company, the Better Business Bureau, the Florida Attorney General, the U.S. DOT and all of the social media) I was finally given a complete refund of the disputed fair. One very nice woman in their accounting department, the first one to offer anything other than derision, took care of everything and now I’m happy. The war is over. Thank you for your forum, David.

Hey Jeff, I am glad you feel like you got what you wanted. The question is, will you fly them again?


Jeff Goldman

No, I won’t. As much as I appreciate the one kind and honest person I finally found at Spirit, I just can’t see myself spinning the wheel again and hoping it works out for the best. No amount of savings is worth that.

I think your original article makes a good point about the bargain airlines in general. Either you’re the type of person who is willing to give up service to save a couple hundred dollars or you’re not. I’m just not one of those people. I work too hard, and life is too short.

Thank you for asking, David! Keep up the great work!

If any of you have read the complaint against “Spirit”. It has nothing too do with the topics in this post.
Spirit explains there fees and concept on there website in advance but the flying public want more than what they pay for.
If you want AA or Jet Blue then dont fly Spirit.
The DOT fined Spirit for luggage issues and there check in process.
There is nothing in the DOT complaint about bag fees, leg room and Spirit’s rude staff.

Jeff Goldman

Actually, T.J. if you read page 2 of the complaint against Spirit, the section “Denied Boarding Compensation” it describes exactly the situation I, and others, have experienced. Follow me, if you will, to footnote 1 of that section where it states, and I quote:

“It is important to note that the Department has long held that ‘it is an unfair and deceptive practice under 49 U.S.C., section 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.”

If this were a simple case of feeling cramped or discovering hidden fees because I didn’t read the fine print, I would take it upon myself as being an uninformed consumer. In this case I, followed all of their policies and found myself turned away with nothing. The consent order describes exactly what I went through, and they described it 18 months before I experienced it. I can only assume their consent order was in response to similar experiences.

As I just wrote above, after fighting this at all levels, the dispute has now been settled to my satisfaction.

In general I don’t think that people who fly with a low cost carrier actually expect something magical; they just want to get to where they’re going without a genuinely negative experience. If you fly with them and adhere to the rules, then good for you, but for those instances where things go wrong it turns into a nightmare and it’s their rigid inflexibility on matters of lost/forgotten documentation and excess baggage weight that give them a bad name. Mistakes happen, but the penalties for human error with an LCC are too often disproportionate. Continuing to perpetuate the notion that passengers who fly with them are simply brainless, unruly children with no long-term memory is a bit disingenuous.

No-one seems to have any actual stats on repeat fliers for airlines like Ryanair and Sprint who hate the service but keep flying with them; regardless of this the common myth carries on that everyone just gets back on board because they only care about price.

Simply boiling the argument down to “you get what you pay for” needs to stop. I agree that paying next to nothing absolutely *does not* entitle you to the same level of service as a five star airline, but similarly it certainly isn’t carte blanche for airlines to treat their customers poorly as in the linked story below.


Of course this story doesn’t represent everyone and I was hoping the humorous nature of the comic would make that clear.

The fact that these airlines continue to succeed is enough statistics to show that people continue to fly them or others that hear they are bad just do not care.

It comes down to price. Which is fine. Many times when I fly using my money, I care more about price than what airline I am flying. Just, I should expect the world when I fly an ultra low cost carrier.


Why is there so much rage against David here? It’s a comic, and every time an airline raises a fee by more than $0.00 or adds a fee at all there is total coverage in the media and outrage from commentators and consumer groups, so it is an accurate depiction of what happens often. Sure, most people aren’t outraged over getting terrible service on a terrible airline like Southwest, but there are the people who expect a United First experience in a Southwest 737 that may or may not have a rapid decompression at some point during the flight, and those are the people this comic is based on.

LOL, But what you describe isn’t only Ultra Low Cost carriers, It’s American, Delta, USAir, CoUnited, and all the legacy carriers. It’s interesting that the US King of Discount Carriers – Southwest- has FEWER fees than any of the rest! Things that make you go hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm………………………….

Yup :). Southwest used to be the no-frills airline, but now it is the frills airline. Go figure.


I agree to 99%… The remaining 1% says that when I enter McDonald’s, besides mediocre service, I often receive DELICIOUS CHEAP meals… I can pay $150 for a meal in a nice restaurant, but probably enjoy the same with $5 in McDonald’s.

*slow clap* well done, sir

I can see both sides of the argument, but I lose sympathy when people hit Stage Five (repeat). In the past, I do think some LCCs weren’t transparent enough about fees when you were buying tickets. It’s fair to be angry at an airline if it didn’t help you set realistic expectations.

But if you buy, fly, complain … and then repeat? Then you can’t claim ignorance. That being said, I think the industry should be clearer about the LCC concept, and it seems like some airlines (Spirit?) have slowly been getting better at that.

Your last paragraph is completely prescient. Especially if you publicly complain over and over, expecting what exactly? Jesus to rise again?

It also seems to be more a North American thing though, seeing as Europe and Southeast Asia is covered in LCCs. Or are North Americans that much more entitled/masochistic/misled?

Dave from Green Bay

”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

Of course, the above is direct conflict with the mindset of the majority of today’s consumer and most corporate purchasing departments. However, in most of my personal and professional purchasing dealings, Mr. Ruskin’s quote rings totally true.

As interesting seeing this reposted, given how much this still rings true, it’s more interesting seeing the changes in the industry since 2011, how airlines on both the full-service and low-cost side of the divide are adapting to the needs and desires of their customer base.

ie. stripper economy fares on FSCs where you get nothing except a chair, assigned seating on Ryanair plus marketing towards business customers, and no checked baggage fees on Southwest. Plus frequent flier programs? Even Emirates is considering segmented fares and bundled upgrades.

Plus let’s note the rise of the hybrid carriers ie. Westjet, JetBlue, FlyDubai, Norweigan, etc. Lie-flat seats on an international transatlantic flight out of a major hub airport on an LCC? We’re not quite there yet but it’s definitely more conceivable now than in 2011.

While there is still a place for the Spirits, Easyjets, and AirAsias, the industry will continue evolving, and we the flying public face more choice than ever.

Note: commenting in 2016, not 2011,and I’m not sure it matters. I’ve never flown an ULCC carrier in the U.S., and in Europe, in most cases I’d rather take a train anyway. (They understand trains like we Never have.) Why no ULCCs for me? First, I do not have to and second, I am NOT hauling a family of six to Disneyland. Let us also remember that (with one very new exception,)Amerika’s ULCCs buy the least expensive, thoroughly used airplanes that they can find. I won’t suggest that they are unsafe, but the FAA is smart to a close eye on their MX practices. There have been multiple systems failures and troubles along the way. Those airplanes are not comfortable and multiple non-safety-of-flight systems do not work and never have. The ULCC model is simply not for me. I still seek LOWER fares but a rarely have to make compromises. I don’t want to get too snooty here, but frankly, I do not have to.
Otherwise, AR’s blog posts seem to have become more that a little sparse in recent weeks. Many of the names that we come to know and respect simply no longer appear. Old material is rerun and new material has become rare. Has AR become an ULC blog, perhaps not compensating the troops as before? I hope not, but if so, it is sad… I hope things improve at AR.


The idea that an ULCC has the oldest/cheapest planes does not always ring true. For example, Spirit has grown so quickly that their fleet growth has been very recent. Average fleet age is just over 5 years. They actually have the youngest, most fuel efficient fleet in America. And their new planes are all NEW, direct from Airbus, including the first NEO delivered to any carrier in the Untied States.

In comparison, I flew on a United flight from LA to Vegas in July and there were ashtrays. ASHTRAYS. So…again, don’t assume cheap fares means cheap planes.

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