Spirit Airlines: Cheap Airfare, but at What Cost?

Put your seatback and tray-table in an upright position, fasten your seatbelt and tightly hold on to your wallet.

Welcome aboard Spirit Airlines, the no-frills, fee-happy airline that just started charging passengers up to $45 one-way to put a carry-on bag in the overhead bin.

That's right: the carry-on bag is no longer free.

And don't think this is the last fee you'll see. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza -- who actually calls the fees "a consumer benefit" -- hinted to ABC News that more surcharges will soon be on their way.

"It lets consumers decide what is important to them rather than the airline presuming what's important to them," Baldanza said. "Imagine if you went to McDonald's and the only things you could buy were the value meals."

Spirit's philosophy is to make base fares cheap as possible, and then to charge passengers for almost every conceivable extra. Want an assigned seat? That will cost you $8 to $20. (Spirit even charges to reserve a middle seat.) Thirsty? Coffee costs $2; a Coke, Sprite or water -- yes water -- is $3.

"This is the airline that's famous for hating their customers," said Gary Leff, who runs the frequent flier blog View from the Wing.

Baldanza said his airline just lets customers choose for themselves. If they don't want a service, they save money.

"Most of the angst about Spirit is from people who have never flown us," he said, "or who don't want to fly us but just want to make sure that the airline they like to fly doesn't become us."

So to get a better idea about Spirit, I bought a ticket between New York and Myrtle Beach, S.C. and prepared for the worst.

The first thing you notice when boarding are ads for timeshares, casinos and the airline's credit card plastered everywhere inside the cabin.

Then there is the legroom. Or, I should say, the lack of legroom.

I'm 5-foot-4 and my knees were touching the seat in front of me. And that was before the supersized gentleman one row up decided to lean back.

Too bad I wasn't on one of Spirit's new jets -- the seats on those don't recline at all.

Spirit Airlines Lacks Legroom

Spirit has less legroom than anybody else. By packing in passengers, the airline can sell more tickets per plane than competitors with essentially the same operating costs. Baldanza does not apologize for the snug fit, comparing his Airbus A320s to those flown by JetBlue.

"Is it tighter? Yes, it is tighter," he said. "It's like the difference between a Honda Civic and a Cadillac. Some people buy the Civic. It's a little smaller but it works for their economics."

JetBlue offers 34 to 38 inches of legroom. Spirit: 28 inches. Those extra few inches add up. JetBlue has 150 seats on its jets; Spirit has 178.

I wasn't the only one who felt cramped. Next to me was a woman named Phyllis Sodine. A few inches shorter than I, she was also forced up against the next row.

"When they say no frills, they mean no frills," Sodine said.

As for the fees, she felt those services should be included in the ticket price.

"You can't even get a glass of water. That's ridiculous," she said. "All I want is a cup of water. They nickel and dime you to death."

Note: the airline sells you water only after offering free bags of dry, salty pretzels.

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