…Buy shares of Spirit Airlines stock so when you’re spending $3 on a bottle of water, you’re really paying yourself…
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One of the most popular posts in the history of the OTR (at least judging by the 100+ comments) was my Spirit Airlines Survival Guide, which recommended, among other things, just cutting everybody at the check-in line and pretending that you were there first. Yeah, I’m a classy guy.
We flew Spirit down to Florida again this weekend and a few things have changed since then, so I thought it would be useful to update the Spirit Airlines Survival Guide for 2014.
First – forget everything you know and expect about commercial airline travel. Have zero expectations going in. Pretend you’re from a planet where there is no air travel. Wipe clean all memories of flying before. You need to have your mind clear. Clear like Tom Cruise. Level 7 Thetan clear.
Spirit operates on a different, er, plane than all other airlines – their processes and how they charge you are completely different from all other airlines. If you think about your past experiences you will just be annoyed. Clear your mind. Clear.
If you are going to check a bag, buy it when you purchase your ticket. You can buy it later – but you’re going to forget. And if you have to do it at the airport they charge you more. If you have to do it at the gate because you forgot to pay the fee for that carry-on bag they charge you for, they will charge you $100, as they did the person in front of me today. You will be unhappy about that.
Please note that, unbelievably, Spirit does NOT charge you to check a car seat.
When you pre-purchase the bags you will have the opportunity to drop your bags off at the Fast Bag Drop. Or, in truth, “fast” bag drop. There will be a line there, and it will not be particularly fast. But it is faster than the non-fast lie. If you are leaving from LaGuardia, they will apparently allow you 50 lbs of bag for no additional charge over the initial baggage charge. But when we got to Ft Lauderdale, they were charging people extra whose bags weighed more than 40 lbs. I don’t know why the weight cutoffs were different in each airport. Spirit likes to keep you on your toes.
The bag drop, however, does eliminate much of the “give us your huddled masses yearning to be free” situation I have found in the past, with a tower-of-babbel-like mishmash of languages being spoken as people drag their life’s belongings through the never-ending check-in line. If you’ve checked in online and pre-purchased your bags, this part of your trip has gone much smoother.
You’ll find out about the Fast Bag Drop when you print your boarding pass at home, which you should do because they will charge you at the airport. They do not offer a mobile boarding pass option, because, well, I don’t know why. But they don’t.
Security will take longer than you expect. Spirit does not participate in TSA Pre, and they do not have Elite members, so everyone is on the same line. That means that you will wait in line, and, if you have status on some other airline, you will wait longer than you have waited for a while. Also, everyone in front of you will either be in a wheelchair or have a stroller. I don’t know why.
When you purchase your ticket they will offer to sell you your seat assignment. Whether this is a good deal is really up to you – you can buy the “big front seat” which is like a domestic business class seat (no other amenities) for roughly $50 (price varies a bit). Exit rows are $25. They’ll charge you $10 for a regular seat in the back.
Keep in mind, though, that they will also just assign you a seat for free when you check in. If you are with a family, you are risking it, of course, that you won’t be able to sit with your family. That may be a blessing. If it is not a blessing, you can try switching with people, but, I’ve seen a few times, the cabin staff aren’t thrilled about that because it slows down the boarding process, and they claim to board an A320 with 170+ seats in it in 20 minutes. Yeah, that’s right.
Speaking of seats, on the A320 on which I am sitting, there is 28” pitch. It sounds worse than it is because the top of the seat in front of me is right under my nose, but the bottom of the seat in front of me is angled away from me, leaving me with the legroom of a 30-31” seat. The seats do not recline, which is a good thing, because the person in front of you would be staring up at your nostrils.
One positive outcome of the controversial fee to carry on bags is that there will be overhead bin space for your coat, which was a pleasant change. Also there will not be people trying to shove their bags into those overhead bins, clogging up the aisles. When you experience this it will occur to you that charging for carry on bags is not completely insane (I didn’t say you’d like it, I’m just saying you’ll understand the decision).
I have found an interesting split among Spirit Airlines staff. Many of the employees I have encountered at check-in and at the gate have a certain surliness to them that I think of as the Spirit Ground Staff attitude. They are clearly not happy to see you, and they are not there to help. I’ve thought a lot about why this might be, and I think the answer is that they are under an enormous amount of pressure to turn their planes around very quickly and that they see their jobs as getting people on the aircraft as quickly as possible. Given that, think of the ground staff as expeditors, not as customer service people.
Cabin staff, on the other hand, have to-a-person been wonderful. They are kind, helpful, funny and casual. We had trainees on the flight down here, and at the end of the flight the lead flight attendant came on the PA and announced that the trainees had completed their training and they were now officially flight attendants, and the plane burst into applause. The lead FA kept asking people to clap louder and louder – it was actually a genuine and very sweet moment.
(On a side note – I was once on a United flight where they announced that it was a flight attendant’s first flight ever – she was working the 1255am departure from LAX to Houston, which I assumed was considered the worst flight in the network).
Spirit sells food and drink on board. Nothing is free. Nothing. That bottle of water is $3. Deal with it. That’s another reason why I say forget your expectations – they charge for food and water. There’s no reason to complain, because they are going to charge you anyway.
There are no power plugs on board, even though the A320 I’m on is less than a year old. There is no video, overhead nor seatback. There is no wi-fi. The traytable is so close to you that you cannot open a laptop on it.
There will be a crapload of children. There will be old people. 75% of the people have appeared never to have flown before, judging by how they went through security. 62% of people will complain about one of the policies I mentioned above (especially if they are charged $100 for a gate-checked bag).
People will complain, loooooord will they complain. They complained about how long it took to pull away from the gate and how long it took to get to the gate when we landed. They complained about how long the luggage took, and the attitude of the flight attendants. They complained about the $3 water. They complained about no video. Complain complain complain. There’s a lyric by a group called Sloan that I love: “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” That’s how I feel about Spirit – it’s not the airline I hate, it’s the passengers.
I guess what I’m saying is this: if you know what you’re getting into before you fly them, Spirit can be a spectacular bargain. The things people complain about are ALL things they could have known beforehand. They are free to choose another airline – if they fly JetBlue, I certainly don’t blame them. But their rules are their rules, and if you don’t compare them to what every other airline does, it actually starts to make sense – why wouldn’t they charge for the services that you use, and not charge you for what you don’t use? Doesn’t THAT make the most sense? (Answer: maybe).
Oh – they were offering to bump people from this flight and giving 2 free roundtrip tickets PLUS $100. PER PERSON. That’s a helluva deal. I’m not sure if they would charge you to accept that offer.
I’m not sure why I find it hilarious that Spirit Airlines is offering Wine in a Can (aka, the Spirit Airlines of Wines), but I do. I’ll just paste the press release:
Friends Wine In A Can today announced their partnership with Spirit Airlines. Starting this week, the company is serving its innovative, canned wine product on all Spirit flights. The “Fun Wine Collection” provides customers of legal drinking age the opportunity to experience new flavors such as Friends White and Strawberry Moscatos.
Friends Wine In A Can is entering the U.S. market, bringing a fusion of European style and thinking to the States and encouraging Americans to think outside the bottle. Consumers may have had wine and wine coolers, but Friends Wine In A Can is bringing a fresh way of thinking about wine in a new “Fun Wine” category. This new category is defined by delectable wine products in a convenient, environmentally-friendly container with six percent alcohol content.
“We are excited to introduce Friends Wine In A Can as a new ‘Fun Wine’ category with Spirit Airlines,” said Joe Peleg, Friends Wine In A Can CEO. “We believe that great tasting wine can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime, and with Spirit Airlines we are taking wine to the clouds.”
“As the first airline to offer this new category of wines, we are pleased to roll out Friends Wine In A Can, providing a fun new experience for our customers,” said Scott Robillard, senior manager onboard experience for Spirit Airlines.
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.
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 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.
The Wall Street Journal has a great interview (click that if you subscribe) with Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza that sheds some light on the way Spirit’s executive team thinks about the carrier (WSJ is a paid service, but you can read this – and all their articles – for free by going to news.google.com and searching for an article’s headline, in this case “Flying Spirit’s ‘Dollar Store in the Sky’ to Profit”).
The most telling part of the article is where he discusses their intense focus on driving down costs by unbundling the flying experience, not creating an airline that’s perfect for executives, by saying, “We’re not in business to build an airline that maybe any of us specifically wants to fly.”
That’s an interesting point because I would say that most airline executives (and really, most executive teams across industries, mine (apparel) included) would say they’re focused on building a product that they would be product to use/wear/fly/whatever. That’s not what Spirit is saying. They are trying to offer the lowest priced (and cost) flying experience available. That means re-thinking conventions about flying, something few airlines in the 80+ year history of the industry have done.
And as I write roughly once a year, that focus has paid off in constant, significant profits, year in and year out, even during the economic crisis of 2008.
You don’t have to fly them; you don’t have to think their ads are funny; you don’t have to be happy about paying for a carry-on; but you have to admire a company that has defined its strategic vision and executed on it as consistently and successfully as Spirit.
Check out the interview – it’s worth the read.
“We’re Master Debaters”
And this text:
We’ve been winning the debate between high fares and low fares for years – you could even say we are master debaters in this area. You see, high fares really rub us the wrong way, so we continue to fight to lower your fares every day. So stop getting jerked around, and enjoy these fares from only $29.80* when you travel from October 11, 2012 through November 15, 2012. All flights must be booked by 11:59 PM ET on October 5, 2012. Hurry, these fares are limited in availability!
They had to do that? I feel like I’m the only moron on the planet defending them (like in this post), and then they have to send that. I feel abused.
You can hate on Spirit Airlines all you want, but from a financial perspective they run a great airline. Their quarterly numbers came out today and I just quickly wanted to point out their ancillary revenue numbers:
- Their ancillary revenue per passenger (per flight segment) is $51.47 (up 18% over a year ago). Average fare is $81.06 (down slightly from last year). I’m not sure they’ll get to the point where their ancillary revenue per passenger is greater than their average fare (if only because they’re able to get an $80 average fare), but they’ll be close. Everyone can complain all they want about the ancillary fees, but Spirit’s ancillary fee revenue grows each year, they can keep their average fare where it is, and their planes are full (85% load factor). What’s this mean? Passengers STILL want low fares, even if it means paying ancillary fees.
I think passengers are drawn to the illusion that they have control over which fees they pay (well, it’s a bit of an illusion — they can certainly avoid paying all fees, but most people will give in and either check a bag, choose a seat, or buy something on board…or print out a boarding pass, or whatever they’re charging for at this point). But those average fares ARE low — Southwest’s average fare is $150 (almost double what Spirit is charging). So even if you combine the average fare and ancillary fees, you still end up paying less than the average Southwest customer. You can decide for yourself whether that $20 savings is worth it to you.
That model – lead with low fares, get ancillary revenue later, appears to be working, as they continue to churn out profits quarter-after-quarter (48 cents a share this quarter). Even in the misery of 2008 they were profitable. If you hate them, you’re free to complain all you want. But they’re not going anywhere (especially not with the pretty significant expansion they’re launching out of Dallas).
A couple of noteworthy new route announcements to share:
JetBlue will launch nonstop JFK-Cartagena service November 2nd, subject to government approval. Flights are Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. Leave JFK 825am, arrive 110pm. Depart Cartagena 205, arrive back at 730. This is JetBlue’s second Colombian destination – they already fly to Bogota. Cartagena is one of my favorite cities – beautiful, historic and vibrant. It’s been a royal pain to get there from New York until now. Fares haven’t been announced yet, but I’ll guess, oh, $199 each way.
Spirit Airlines will expand its Dallas operation and add flights to Houston Intercontinental, Baltimore, Oakland, Las Vegas and Portland. They’ve also filed to fly to Cancun from DFW. Baltimore and Houston launch in September, the other 3 cities don’t come until April 2013. If those cities seem familiar, it’s because they’re also Southwest strongholds. Dallas – Houston seems like a wacky choice, but Spirit has seemingly had success flying Detroit-Chicago and Vegas – LAX. Southwest can’t fly nonstop from Dallas Love to Baltimore, Portland, Oakland or Vegas, but Spirit may attract some of those price-conscious travelers looking to head there. Spirit also has no problem killing routes quickly, so even if one (all?) doesn’t work, they’ll drop it rather than invest in it. An interesting move from Spirit, since they seem to feel they’re just about tapped out on markets from FLL to the Caribbean.
Based on the 50+ comments on this post about Spirit Airlines reviews, people don’t like the Spirit Airlines baggage fee situation (especially the carry-on fees). Well, if you hated it before, you’re going to hate it $5 more in November. They’ll be raising most baggage fees by that amount on November 6th. The $35 for a carry-on is pretty awesome. Thought you’d like to know.
Say what you will about Spirit Airlines (and based on the comments on this post you will say quite a bit), they are certainly innovative.
Recently they have introduced a new fare display that’s better than that of any other airline out there. Check it out:
Spirit gets knocked for being customer unfriendly because of their fees, but I’ve always said that’s total nonsense, as they’re quite upfront about it. This fare display is more customer-friendly than any I’ve seen anywhere else. I love the color-coded calendar, quickly showing you how changing your date of travel can save you money (or cost you money, as the case may be). The web-dork side of me thinks that is just a brilliant piece of information architecture.
Below, they break out the base fare and the fuel, plus government taxes (you can hover over the taxes to get the individual tax breakout). No, I don’t know why the $9 Club fare has no fuel charge. Whatever. I love that they tell you the percentage of your fare that goes toward taxes.
Are their seats cramped? Definitely. Do they seem to have some customer service issues? Apparently. But are they more upfront about what your ticket really costs than any other airline out there? Absolutely. Plus, they quickly and easily show you how to save money on different days.
Really, really well done.