Spirit Airlines Sees All Those Passenger Complaints as Mere Misunderstandings

A ground crew member loads baggage onto a Spirit Airlines plane at San Diego International Airport

If you fly on Spirit Airlines and find the experience unpleasant, odds are your gripe rests not with the specific flight but with the company’s business model. The low-fare, high-fees model requires Spirit to eliminate every possible cost from its operation. The seats won’t recline, there’s no free water—it’s all part of the bargain.

But that doesn’t mean passengers won’t complain about it. Spirit draws roughly three times more complaints to federal transportation officials than any other airline. The rate was about 8 per 100,00 customers over the last five years, according to a report by a consumer group released last week. Spirit says the rate has declined to 5 per 100,000 in the past few months.

The much-maligned airline launched a promotion to “celebrate the 99.99 percent” who don’t lodge complaints with the feds, offering $24 discounts to all. “That’s right, over 99.99 percent of our customers did not file a complaint with the Department of Transportation in 2013,” Spirit declares in a press release. “To the 0.01 percent—that’s OK, we know we aren’t the airline for everyone (though we’d love for you to save by flying with us again!).”

As part of Spirit’s response to the media coverage, Chief Executive Officer Ben Baldanza wrote a letter today to journalists in cities where his airline flies, to help explain its business model:

“Offering our low fares requires doing some things that some people complain about—more seats on our planes with a little less legroom, no Wi-Fi or video screens, and no refunds without insurance; however, these reduce costs which gives our customers the lowest fares in the industry. Judging by the number of customers on our planes and repeat customer rate, most people like this tradeoff.”

Many travelers shop airline travel by price alone. Spirit’s problem is that it attracts lots of customers who love the bargain fare but don’t understand the business model that produced that fare. That means you almost always pay less for a Spirit flight than you would on another airline. The issue is whether you choose to complain about why you pay less.

A large portion of Spirit customers “want the legroom and they want a can of Coke, but they still like saving the money,” Baldanza—an industry veteran who’s worked at several airlines, including American, Continental, and US Airways—told me during an interview last month. The lack of legroom, he said, remains flyers’ chief complaint.

The passenger gripes tallied and occasionally investigated by the government are just a small fraction of the complaints registered directly with the airlines themselves. Spirit, just like other airlines, receives vastly more complaints directly from travelers who won’t bother with the unwieldy federal complaint system. That list of woes also gives Spirit detailed data on which aspects of its operation are found truly dismal.

Just don’t expect Spirit to swoop in and smooth out all the rough edges of the traveling experience. In his letter, Baldanza vows that the Florida-based carrier won’t “add costs for things that most customers don’t value as much as our low fares just to reduce the complaints of a few customers. Doing that would raise prices for everyone, compromising our commitment to what our customers have continuously told us they truly value—the lowest possible price.”

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