Spirit Airlines: Cheap Airfare, but at What Cost?

But fees notwithstanding, Sodine plans to fly Spirit again. She and her husband paid a total of $181 for both of their roundtrip tickets. (That's after shelling out $39.95 for an annual membership in the airline's $9 Fare Club, giving them access to the cheapest fares.)

"That's as cheap as you can get," she said.

My roundtrip fare was almost as good a deal. It cost $110.83, including $33.48 for the ticket, $37.40 in taxes and fees and $39.95 for the club.

Teri Russiello, a 27-year-old teacher from New York, flies the airline all the time. She travels during summers off. In the fall Russiello, a University of Michigan alum, takes Spirit to attend every home football game.

"It's like the cheapest airline in the world," she said.

She has no problems with the extra fees.

"Here's the thing: you're getting a flight for $9. I don't see what the problem is," Russiello said. "The purpose of the flight is to go from point A to point B. You see $9, what do you think you're getting? Salmon and filet mignon?"

Russiello is just the type of flier Spirit wants. Baldanza said his airline's low fares make travel affordable for first-time fliers and let other leisure travelers fly more frequently.

"We're not out there trying to steal traffic from American, Southwest and Delta," he said. "We lower the fare. That lower fare makes more people travel or makes the same people travel more often, and we carry that growth."

Spirit Airlines: Cheap Airfare, High Fees

Spirit is still relatively tiny. It carried 6.1 million passengers last year, according to the Department of Transportation. Delta transported ten times as many passengers and 701.5 million people flew all U.S. airlines combined. Baldanza said that more than 500,000 of his customers paid less than $10 each way for their tickets before taxes and fees.

The formula of low fares and high fees appears to be working. Spirit has been profitable the last six quarters, making $24.1 million from January through March, according to the DOT. The privately-owned airline makes money by keeping wages low, charging high fees, relying on brash online ads that go viral and flying young planes which are fuel efficient and require less maintenance.

"Spirit Airlines is the airline that everybody loves to bash, but they do have the lowest fares on the routes they fly, if you book on their own website," said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com.

Spirit doesn't always have the lowest fares, Hobica said. But most often they do. And that -- not the number of added fees -- is what matters to fliers.

"They vote with their wallets. We see that time and time again," Hobica said. "Airlines raise fares and people stop flying."

It is debatable if consumers understand all the fees they are subject to before booking a ticket. Congress recently held a hearing about proposals to make the fees more transparent and to subject them to the 7.5 percent tax levied on airline tickets.

Baldanza insists that his customers understand. But Anne Banas, executive editor of the website SmarterTravel is doubtful. She said the fees quickly erode Spirit's claims that it has the lowest fares.

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