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What, Exactly, Is Spirit Airlines Up To?

Spirit Airlines appears to be in an interesting transitional period in the life of the carrier – I know (I know!) that many, many of you just hate them (even if you haven’t flown them) because of customer service horror stories you’ve heard. Longtime OTR readers know that I’m – if not an apologist, exactly – certainly a supporter of what they’re doing and what they’ve achieved (ongoing profitability, even through the dark days of 2008).

From a network perspective they had a good run with a handful of domestic point-to-point routes; lots of flights down to Ft. Lauderdale; and service to a mix of leisure and so-called Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America. So far so good.

But they then tested out adding in some Allegiant-like routes from third-tier cities (ie, Latrobe, PA) to leisure destinations such as Myrtle Beach. Some of those have worked, some have not.

They’re now rolling out service to markets where they feel they can stimulate travel by offering much, much lower fares, even though there is already significant competition on those routes (Houston Bush Intercontinental – Los Angeles; Minneapolis – Denver). They feel they can compete against and entrenched incumbent (such as United in Houston) by throwing a flight or 2 a day at a few cities and seeing what works. They appear to have no fear of other airlines.

Except JetBlue.

JetBlue is, if not exactly kicking Spirit’s butt, starting to compete with Spirit out of Ft. Lauderdale, and in a few other markets. Let’s take a look:

JetBlue is now competing head-to-head with Spirit from Ft. Lauderdale to these routes in the Caribbean and Latin America: Bogota; Cancun; Nassau; Kingston; San Juan; Santo Domingo; Medellin; and San Jose (Costa Rica) — the latter 2 will launch later this year.

Spirit Airlines Routemap from FLL

JetBlue Routemap from FLL

Spirit is dropping FLL – Nassau and moving the Kingston flight to be seasonal.

It would appear that JetBlue believes that they can take market share from Spirit by offering a slightly-higher-priced product that is perceived as providing far more value (legroom, TV, etc). That bet appears to be working.

The two airlines also went head-to-head when Spirit briefly moved into the Dallas-Boston market, where it competed with JetBlue. But Spirit dropped the route less than a year later.

JetBlue is a formidable opponent to Spirit because of that perceived value gap – although people complain incessantly about Spirit, in many cases the service it provides is really no different that what passengers receive on other airlines. But JetBlue has differentiated itself through legroom and TV on every aircraft – as well as reasonable pricing – which makes them Target to Spirit’s K-Mart.

So Spirit is now focusing on routes where it can avoid JetBlue (they are no longer expanding in the Caribbean), and where it can compete with United and Delta, believing it can stimulate traffic at much, much lower fares.

They’re also now figuring out whether they can compete against Southwest, which no longer offers the lowest fares in many of its markets (and also doesn’t offer extra legroom or TV). Spirit just announced new nonstop flights between Philadelphia and Vegas; as well as Baltimore and Vegas. Those are Southwest routes. Spirit, though, has no issue dropping a route just months after launch – I’ll give them a ton of credit for trying new things to see what works.

If Spirit CAN compete against Southwest (I actually think they now offer a much lower priced alternative to those who were drawn to Southwest back in the day), it opens up a world of city pairs that they never would have considered 5 years ago. I bet the Spirit route map looks a lot more like Southwest’s in 3 years than the Ft Lauderdale-heavy routes we see today.

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  1. Yes, Spirit is cheaper than what Southwest was back in the day. But it wasn’t just the low prices which attracted passengers to Southwest. It was also consistent, friendly service and a decent flight experience. Spirit offers neither of those.

  2. I have to ask your opinion since you fly Spirit regularly. I am flying Spirit for the first time in 2 weeks from ORD to DFW and back. In your opinion, do I need to pre-pay for seat assignments. I am flying with my husband and we obvisouly want to sit together. Will we be assigned seats next to each other automatically? Yes they were booked on the same res at the same time. I am a travel agent so I know all about how this works. Just want to know what you have experienced in this area. I can’t seem to find an answer to this topic anywhere online. Everyone is too busy complaining about everything else! Thank you.

    • Hi Jill. Generally, I find you do not need to pre-pay for seat assignments. If I were you, I would keep checking the site to see how many seats are left — if it gets tight, you may want to pony up. But assuming you and your husband are on the same res, you’ll be seated together (if there are 2 seats together) when they assign seats for free at the airport.

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