Spirit Airlines: Hated By Some, Making Money Just The Same

Spirit Airlines Installs "Pre-Reclined" Seats On New Airbus A320sspiritair.com
Spirit Airlines Installs "Pre-Reclined" Seats On New Airbus A320's

If you've never flown Spirit Airlines, you're not missing much. There are no free bags to miss, no entertainment to miss, and forget missing comfortable seats; not long ago, the airline unveiled "pre-reclined" seats which are noteworthy for their inability to recline.

You don't even have to worry about missing a free glass of water since such amenities are wild extravagances on the self-styled ultra-low cost carrier. When speaking of customer service and Spirit, there's really only one question: What customer service?

Spirit offers none of the things flyers say they want, and yet, the airline is making money.

Maybe that's because Spirit dismisses passenger complaints (more on that later) in favor of focusing on what they really want, which might be summed up in the following Yelp review: "I travel on Spirit all the time. I know they suck! But, for a cheap ticket, I will endure anything."

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How cheap is a Spirit ticket? Last week, a roundtrip flight from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale on Spirit was going for just under $78. United's price was more than twice that.

Of course, sometimes you pay for cheap airfare in other ways. Last month, an unruly passenger aboard a Spirit flight from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale prompted an emergency landing in Houston, turning what should have been a four-and-a-half-hour trip into a 19 hour hell flight. It's not clear why the pilot chose to land in Houston since Spirit doesn't fly there which greatly complicated matters what with no planes to transfer to or even available gates. Flyers meanwhile had to endure a long wait on the plane and in the airport with no amenities but the most maddening thing was said to be the utter lack of communication with Spirit.

Contrast this with a recent hell flight on United where passengers were also stuck in an airport (Shanghai) but at least United gave them free hotel rooms and free food, as well as regular updates on the flight's progress - or lack of it. No surprise when United offered its passengers refunds, but some were startled when Spirit did, too. Maybe the airline learned a lesson from the saga of the dying vet.

The Vietnam veteran, Jerry Meekins, had already purchased a ticket on Spirit when he learned his health had deteriorated to the point that he wouldn't be able to use it. So, he asked for a refund, but Spirit doesn't do refunds. It finally reversed itself after a boycott-Spirit campaign gained thousands of 'friends' on Facebook and presumably threatened the airline's bottom line. In any event, Mr. Meekins finally got his refund. He died last month.

Spirit wasn't afraid to go up against a dying veteran and it wasn't afraid to take on the U.S. government, either. It attempted to fight Dept. of Transportation rules including the one requiring advertised airfare prices include government taxes and fees. Never mind that most passengers love the "what you see is what you pay" rule, Spirit claimed it somehow violated their right to free speech. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

Despite this - or possibly because of its moxie - Spirit is appears to be more popular than ever. In the second quarter of this year, the airline beat expectations with $346.3 million in revenue for a profit of $35.3 million, which CEO Ben Baldanza pointed out was a better than 35 percent year-over-year increase in adjusted net income.

And the cities just keep on coming. Over the past few months, Spirit has been churning out press releases by the ream to boast of new service to cities, especially from Dallas and Denver. International expansion continues, too, with more flights to Mexico bolstering its impressive roster of destinations that span the Caribbean and Central and South America (Spirit flies as far south as Lima, Peru). As Spirit's Baldanza said recently, "We're everywhere." Not quite, but how far away can world domination be?

Spirit's media spokesperson Misty Pinson tempered some of this ebullience by saying, "When we enter a new market, we are not looking to steal traffic from other carriers," and I think she's right. They're looking for people who don't fly much, but when they do, all they want is a truly rock-bottom, dirt-cheap experience. Nothing wrong with that in the least. But, if you want frills - up to and including a free cup of coffee - you might be better off on another carrier. At least until Spirit takes over.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.