Human beings are creatures of habit. We like what makes us feel comfortable and safe, and usually stick with what we trust.
This is especially true when we’re traveling, maybe even more so.
But flying in the face of logic, one airline has earned the worst reputation possible – and yet stays successful. How do they do it?
Sooner or later, having a negative reputation in business spells your ultimate demise. No one wants to put up with crappy service – no matter how cheap it may be.
In the end, most of us would rather pay a few extra bucks to avoid a miserable travel experience. And yet, this is where Spirit Airlines has defied every precedent and social norm in becoming a huge success.
When Sardines Fly
The first time I flew Spirit, I’d heard they were a budget airline, but it was to be a short flight and the only one available to get me home at a reasonable time of day.
What a fool I was.
My first shocker came when I went up to the kiosk to print my boarding pass. That’s when I saw it… totally unexpected, totally unreasonable fees.
This wasn’t the business-as-usual I was used to. I’ve always had kids in tow when I fly – and kids have stuff. Lots of stuff – strollers and car seats and their own bags.
They throw a fit if they can’t have a suitcase of their very own on a trip. But I’ve always managed to keep it down to one carry-on each.
So imagine my surprise when I had to pay at the kiosk for all of our carry-ons. Carry-ons that were included on our flight out on Delta – carry-ons that would now cost me well over a hundred bucks to get them home.
Then, we board. And so came shocker number two. This is when Spirit earned my nickname of “the Tin Can of the Skies.”
Bare metal cabin interior. Seats smaller than even the most cramped ones I’d sat in before. No tray table for my kids to prop their coloring books so I could survive the trip.
Yes, there were seat cushions – about an inch thick. All I could think was if we plunged into the ocean, there was no way these would cut it as flotation devices.
“Eww, Mommy, this is a gross airplane. I want to go back on the other one,” and a “Great choice, hon,” from my husband who never books any of our travel because he barely knows how to turn on a computer.
If looks could kill, he would have been gone as quickly as a cockroach in a Raid commercial. Poof.
“We’ll survive,” I thought. “I’ll get the kids a snack and that will keep them happy for a few minutes.”
They waited in anticipation as the beverage cart came closer. Except when I asked for three sodas and three snacks, I was offered a card reader so I could pay more than 20 bucks.
The flight attendant probably thought there was something wrong with me with the look I gave him. I fumbled in my purse (my only allowed personal bag) and found an old packet of Goldfish crackers…
…and vowed never to fly Spirit Airlines again.
Now, I’m usually pretty careful about doing my research, but this was kind of a last-minute trip to see family. I’ll admit, I didn’t really read the fine print.
One personal bag only, and there are size restrictions on that. Carry-ons can run up to $50 a piece, unless you’re a member of the “Spirit Fare Club,” which knocks that down by about half for a monthly membership fee of around $10.
Of course, that means you have to be a regular Spirit Airlines passenger to get any of your money’s worth. And who in their right mind wants to do that?
Defying the laws of common sense…
I guess it’s time to forget what we learned in our high school economics class. Spirit – for some reason – has broken the rules and won.
Spirit is beyond low-budget. They are bare-bones… a fleet of flying sardine cans.
And they don’t really have the greatest reputation for being on time or having good customer service.
Spirit is a regular punchline on comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, and social media is full of complaints and jokes about their service.
It’s so bad, the airline is well on its way to becoming a pop culture expression for the worst experience you can have.
“That root canal was a Spirit, for sure.”
And according to Pocket Travel, a recent study of social media posts about airlines and air travel found that nearly 70 percent of those mentioning Spirit were negative.
In the last ten years, they’ve continuously earned the most customer complaints of any airline – and more than double that of any other major carrier.
They’ve become a joke and a laughingstock. And while they don’t like the reputation, they don’t seem to care much about it either.
Yet, their profit margins are staggering, often well more than industry averages. They bring in billions a year and are currently building a multi-million dollar headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
While many people can’t bear to fly the budget airline, Spirit’s strategy of “unbundling” works for others, and they continue to fly these sardine cans in droves.
If all you want to do is get to your destination, then you’re golden. Of course, no one said you’d get there on time.
Experts attribute Spirit’s success to the fact that they found a niche in the commercial airline market.
Some people don’t need a carry-on. They’re taking a short trip and don’t need to bring a lot. A backpack will do.
Some people don’t want a snack on a short flight. They don’t need to watch a movie when they can bring a book for free. Maybe they’re traveling alone and don’t care who they sit next to.
So why should they pay for stuff they don’t want or need?
Even when other airlines tried to compete with new “budget economy” sections, those who didn’t want any extras at all decided to save money by flying Spirit.
So who are these people – and what’s wrong with them?
They’re often single or frequent travelers who take short flights on a regular basis, or students –and, especially, people who can’t generally afford to fly.
If you can accept the “zero frills” approach, then you can get a good deal.
Spirit packs planes by getting rid of extra materials and saves money and space by eliminating reclining seats and tray tables. This, they say, allows them to put more people on more flights with less financial overhead.
Their marketing strategy is to offer cheap flights and get people where they want to go. They never promised it would be fun or comfortable.
And it seems that’s just fine for a lot of their customers – the ones who complain about them, but book flights anyway. The bottom line is, a dollar is a dollar.
They say, “a fool and his money are easily parted.” But you can be a fool in a shrewd way with Spirit Airlines.
The Bad and the Ugly
So, other than saving money, there’s really nothing good about Spirit Airlines. They’re adequate, and that’s about as good as good gets for them.
But sometimes, they remind us why their customer service reputation is so bad. I guess it would cost us more for a little human decency.
Proud American Traveler recently reported on a traumatic Spirit Airlines flight earlier this year when an elderly woman died on board and the crew didn’t even cover the poor woman with a blanket. https://proudamericantraveler.com/people-behaving-badly-on-planes-dont-be-caught-dead-sitting-next-to-these-people/
Of course, much like free snacks and decent seat cushions, there are no blankets on Spirit Airlines.
And they recently came under fire on social media for another shining example of their lack of customer care.
Jerry Meekins is a 76-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War.
He booked a flight on Spirit Airlines so he could be by his daughter’s side while she was undergoing surgery.
Except that Meekins has terminal cancer, and his doctor told him he needed to cancel his flight.
So was Spirit understanding and accommodating? Did Meekins get a full refund?
Of course not—this is Spirit Airlines and they’re as tight with their money as Ebenezer Scrooge, with about the same reputation.
Social media users were “disgusted” and couldn’t believe that a terminally-ill veteran wasn’t worthy of $197 worth of respect – the cost of his non-refundable flight.
Some are calling for a boycott of Spirit, which is unlikely as long as people want to save money. Also unlikely is any epiphany of conscience a la Scrooge on Christmas morning.
They know what we think of them, but they’re too worried about changing since they’re still bringing in the bucks.
As Spirit Airlines feels the crunch of competition from other airlines trying to offer cheaper flights that are actually pleasant, Spirit has had to make some changes.
They’ve worked to improve their ability to keep flights on schedule. They’ve worked to add Wi-Fi and make cabins a little more comfortable.
But this all takes money, and it’s a bit ironic considering that their success is based on their no-frills approach – an approach that is almost completely unique in the airline industry.
The fact that they are so bad at nearly everything has kept them novel. Customers who don’t care don’t want things at Spirit to change. After all, you know anything extra is going to be added to ticket prices.
Spirit Airlines will continue to make money by saving money. And as long as human beings continue to be cheapskates (most of us are), they’ll keep their tin cans flying.
Spirit will continue to be a good option for emergencies, for people who can’t afford other carriers, and for passengers who think of it as quick and easy transportation like a bus or the subway.
So, know what you’re getting into when booking with Spirit and you’ll be fine.
You know what they say… He who expects nothing is never disappointed.