While I’m traveling in Antarctica for a few weeks I’ll be reprising some of my most popular posts from the past three years. This post — now updated — originally ran in June 2013.
Cut-rate Spirit Airlines has developed an interesting marketing approach. They’ve traded in customer service and comforts for ultra-low fares, and are charging extra for everything from rolling carry-on bags ($35-$55) to water ($3 a bottle), and printing a boarding pass at the airport ($10). Can pay toilets be far behind?
Spirit hypes what it calls its “bare fare: No’free’ bag. No ‘free’ drink. A ticket with us gets you and a personal item from A to B.”
For “personal item,” think average purse size or a small backpack. Measurements are stingy — 16” x 14” x 12” — and if you don’t pay for your “oversize” bag when you book, thinking it might squeak through the sizer without being flagged, you’ll have to pay $100 to get it on the plane.
I had planned to fly Spirit to Ft. Lauderdale a while back, just to test what I could bring for free, but realized I would have had to choose between a change of clothes and my laptop — so I bailed.
It may have been just as well.
Spirit’s on-time arrivals record is well below the industry average, there are no onboard movies or Wi-Fi, and most seats are crammed in, offering less legroom even than the already legroom-deprived other airlines do. (A few seats, which you have to pay a premium for, have extra legroom — “if you’re into that kind of thing,” they sneer.)
What’s more, the seats don’t recline – which, considering that someone reclining a seat in front of you may end up in your lap in these sardine-can conditions, may actually be a good thing.
Some Like It Cramped and Thirsty
Spirit’s website is hip and catchy and tries to put a good face on everything — why should you pay for someone else’s “free” bag? they ask — noting that other airlines build the relatively few freebies left (such as water and printing boarding passes at the airport) into their initial fares.
But while, admittedly, Spirit does inform you on its website of the fees you’ll pay for this or that — if you hunt long enough — most customers are bound to end up getting snared for one or more of them, whether they’re prepared to pull out their wallets or not.
So far the approach seems to be working. Spirit’s profits are growing, stock prices are up, and a fleet of new planes is planned for the future.
Let’s face it, everyone likes a low fare – unless the extra fees mount up too fast and cut significantly into the savings. My guess, though, is that the typical Spirit repeat customer is not a baby boomer – as you get older, the extra legroom and reclining seats become more important, eclipsing the thrill of saving 50 bucks on a flight.
The Late, Un-lamented Tower Air
It all reminds me of another cut-rate, no-frills airline that I used to fly cross country back in the ‘90s when I lived in New York and still had an office in my previous home city of San Francisco. It was called Tower Airlines, and its customer service was abysmal.
Once when one of its flights was delayed by hours, stranding scores of customers in the San Francisco airport, all the Tower agents locked themselves in a back office so they wouldn’t have to answer questions or complaints. Finally the airline just gave up and Tower collapsed, which was a merciful ending for everyone.
I still haven’t flown Spirit Airlines, and assume it couldn’t be as bad as Tower. But I predict future troubles if at some point if they don’t loosen up that legroom and attract more baby boomers. Cut rates are one thing, cut-off leg circulation quite another.
I’d be interested in hearing from anyone about where they come down on that trade-off: low fares vs. low comfort and customer service.
Travel Tip of the Day: If you do fly with Spirit, make sure you do everything at the time of booking at spirit.com; if you wait till online check-in or worse yet when you’re at the airport, you’ll pay “big moola,” as Spirit puts it.