Dispirited Experiences: What makes Spirit so undesirable?

I’ve flown Spirit Airlines twice – once to Chicago O’Hare, once to Baltimore. Both times, I got on the outbound leg of my trip, flew to my destination, and had no complaints.

Unfortunately, the return legs of both trips proved to be much less pleasant.

On the trip back from Chicago, my flight was delayed by an hour. Coming back from Baltimore, it was 2 ½ hours. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.

The Spirit Hallmarks

Spirit brands itself as an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC). And in certain instances, Spirit’s prices are less than those of a number of carriers. However, I have found a number of times where American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, jetBlue, and United Airlines have beaten Spirit’s offering by some distance. As a result, I don’t really buy Spirit’s implicit M.O. of “the reason we provide (virtually) zero amenities is so we can deliver the cheapest fares.” They’ve even explained that they charge for water because putting water on the plane makes the plane weigh more, thus leading to the need for more fuel and increased fuel expenses. Given that a variety of airlines have started to charge for refreshments, I get it, but a glass of water is different than a can of soda – I don’t know of any other carrier that charges for the former.

Getting Carried Away

In an era where airlines have come under increased scrutiny for charging checked bag fees, Spirit has taken it one step further, as the carrier charges for carry-on bags. To an extent, I don’t mind this. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me to see oblivious people trying to stuff their over-sized carry-on into the overhead bin. At the same time, I think charging for carry-ons is a little excessive, and could perhaps be the beginning of an avalanche of ancillary fees.

Things Aren’t Always What they Seem

Ultimately, Spirit’s lack of amenities is done in the name of frugality – it certainly doesn’t intend to be malevolent. In fact, the carrier openly acknowledges its lack of amenities, telling passengers that a lack of frills is how the carrier is able to sustain its business model. However, I can’t say that I buy this, either. For example, jetBlue can afford to provide passengers with free refreshments, free seat selection, free Wi-Fi, and free DirecTV. I can’t say I comprehend why Spirit feels the need to do without TVs, Wi-Fi, or an adequately-sized tray table.

Of course, my sample size may of Spirit experiences be small. Moreover, I do not doubt there are passengers who fly Spirit without delays. However, Spirit’s no-frills rationale seems flawed, particularly considering the existence of jetBlue and Southwest Airlines. After all, these two low-cost carriers are the two highest-ranked U.S. carriers in the J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction rankings. Maybe if Spirit focused more on service, it would be able to rid itself its bad reputation.

Cork Popped: NAX to pick from PSM and PVD as alternatives to BOS

Just days after Norwegian received DOT approval for flights between Boston Logan and Cork, Ireland, the carrier made a big announcement. Instead of flying out of Logan, it will fly its Boeing 737-800s out of either Portsmouth, NH or Providence, RI. Norwegian will continue to operate 787s between Boston and Copenhagen, London Gatwick, and Oslo.

The chosen location would be the carrier’s second base to open in the U.S., after the announcement that NAX would open a base at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, NY (SWF), around an hour north of New York City.

The Reasoning

Norwegian’s explanation for its decision is quite interesting, in my view. “To operate the Boeing 737s … from a primary airport [such as Boston] becomes much more expensive with a small aircraft type than a larger aircraft type due to limited passenger numbers,” Norwegian spokesman Anders Lindstrom said.

A Cost-Benefit Analysis

While both airports are approximately an hour from Boston, each has its own unique advantages.

Portsmouth’s advantages:

  • Pease has just one airline who operates scheduled service to the airport – Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier whose focus is on domestic operations.
  • Less-congested city (approximately 30,000 people vs. 100,000)
  • Close to Interstate 95
  • Hourly bus service to Boston

Providence’s advantages:

  • It would appear that the catchment area for potential passengers is much larger than Pease
  • MBTA Commuter Rail service to Boston
  • Close to Interstate 95
  • Better potential for connections from other airlines
A Closer Look

There is some business sense in Norwegian’s decision. Certainly, there’s something to be said for lower operating costs, especially considering the airline’s low-cost model. Yet it remains to be seen if passengers are willing to travel an hour or more just to save a few bucks. This will be pertinent, particularly considering the extensive number of ancillary fees that Norwegian charges. Moreover, while negotiations have been going on for some time, it is a bit perplexing that Norwegian waited so long to make this declaration.

Of course, it could well be that these flights are a hit, and are the start of a big transformation. Who knows!

The Basics of United’s Basic Economy

When I first heard that United was unveiling a Basic Economy product comparable to the experience of an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC), I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. On the one hand, I have flown on an ULCC – Spirit Airlines – and have not been overly impressed with anything except for the cost of my ticket. However, I am a big believer in making flying as accessible as possible, and while I do think that even the legacy carriers have decreased their airfares across the board, there are certain amenities that certain people simply don’t feel that they need on a short domestic flight: food, drink, etc.

What are the differences?

To the average traveler, the two main things that differentiate Basic Economy from United’s normal Economy product are:

  1. The traveler cannot bring a carry-on bag on board the aircraft. Personal items are allowed, however.
  2. You cannot choose your seat when you purchase your ticket. Seats are assigned at check-in.

Another component of Basic Economy – one that is perhaps less pertinent to people who don’t fly frequently – is that frequent flyers cannot earn elite qualifying miles (EQMs) with Basic Economy fares. They will earn redeemable “award miles” that can be used towards redeeming flights in the future, but these miles will not count towards the earning of elite status. (If you want to learn more about the difference between award miles and EQMs, check out this comprehensive explanation from The Points Guy).

United isn’t the first airline to go with a form of “assigning” seats. In fact, Southwest Airlines’ unique policy gives every traveler a boarding classification consisting of a letter (A-C) and number (1-60) based on when they check in, albeit Southwest elite members are assigned a better boarding position (usually A1-A15), hence allowing them a better chance at their preferential seat. Southwest claims that this makes boarding far more efficient, and as someone who has flown on Southwest I can’t disagree: both boardings were extremely quick. However, I personally like to know that I’m getting a window seat, so – for that reason – this wouldn’t be something that I would choose. With Southwest, you can get in a solid boarding position by checking in early: I got window seat 3F from position B6, which was in the second full boarding group. With United, however, you’re relying on the luck of the draw. Additionally, passengers sitting Basic Economy seats are relegated to the last boarding group. Not a huge deal, but some might not enjoy having to wait to board and – likely – disembark.

I can’t say that I’m super upset about less carry-ons, though. As someone who often sees people either struggling to fit their (too large) carry-on into the overhead compartment, I personally think that a lot of people try to push the limit with carry-ons. A personal item, however, is much more restrictive, and the consequences of not being able to fit said item under the seat are, I think, more likely to deter people from making poorly-advised decisions regarding how large their personal item is.

What don’t people like about ULCCs?

There are a number of reasons, but I’ll outline my own reason for avoiding ULCCs.

I’ve only flown twice on an ULCC, both times with Spirit. And while my sample size of ULCC experiences is admittedly small, my issue with ULCCs has been the sheer lack of reliability that I’ve experienced. Both times I’ve flown Spirit, the way out has been on time, but the way back has been delayed by at least an hour; in the second case (a return flight from BWI), it was 2 1/2 hours. And while Spirit did provide a $50 voucher for that delay, that was enough for me to decide that enough is enough. Delay me once, shame on me; delay me twice, shame on you.

Additionally, the difference in price between a ULCC and your average low-cost carrier (LCC) is usually negligible. In fact, jetBlue, which is my favorite domestic airline, is a low-cost carrier, and I’ve found its prices to be cheaper than or comparable to those of Spirit on many occasions. Why would I pay $10 less for vastly inferior comfort, service, and reliability?

Moreover, the top two U.S. airlines in terms of customer satisfaction ratings – jetBlue and Southwest – are both LCCs. Ultimately, LCCs have proven that there is no inherent need to sacrifice neither the hard product (materials/physical amenities/etc.) nor the soft product (service/food/drink/etc.) for savings. Given their inferior customer satisfaction scores, it appears that some U.S.-based ULCCs still haven’t comprehended that.

What’s the difference between Basic Economy and a ULCC?

Simply put, United’s hard product is significantly superior to that of Spirit and other ULCCs. While those airlines charge for basically everything except breathing and using the bathroom, United passengers will be able to enjoy in-flight entertainment (where available), Wi-Fi (for purchase), and a normal Economy seat (even if it’s in a less-than-desirable location),. Conversely, most Spirit planes have tiny tray tables, no Wi-Fi, and the seats make me feel like I’m in a sardine can. Of course, United’s economy isn’t comparable to a day at the spa, but it’s far more comfortable than anything comparable that you’ll find on a ULCC.

Is Basic Economy worth it?

Given my desire to know that I’m getting a window seat, I probably would not choose a Basic Economy seat, although I am an admittedly rare case. Besides, the routes which United flies out of my home airport are usually pretty affordable anyway – I’ve flown both BOS-ORD and BOS-EWR for less than $100 round trip – so the cost savings don’t justify the concession I’d have to make in terms of predictability.

However, for the average person who travels light and just wants to get on the plane, then I’d say it’s absolutely worth it: you’ll get a reasonably comfortable seat, a hard product that is far better than the ULCCs, and will even get complementary food and drinks. And, most importantly, you’ll get a very good deal.