Recently I traveled for business to Chicago on Spirit Airlines. The airline has been around for over 25 years, but I had never heard of it or noticed their planes— which is hard to believe given the gaudy yellow color (see photo). Normally I wouldn’t bother to comment on an air travel experience except this was my first time traveling on an airline that charges you for everything. And when I say “everything”; I really mean everything. I cannot think of a single additional thing they could possibly charge for; unless they start charging to use the toilet on the plane (don’t laugh I understand Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, actually proposed the idea).
From a business theory perspective, charging separately for different services makes sense because no one wants to pay for something they are not getting or using. However, when confronted with it in practice I found it annoying and in the end wound up paying as much or more than if I had flown via United Airlines.
When I was booking, the Spirit flight was about $100 cheaper than the equivalent United flight. That alone probably wouldn’t have been enough to persuade me, but the Spirit flight was from Oakland to Chicago and United was from San Francisco. Oakland airport is about 10 miles closer and more accessible so that was the deciding factor.
The $100 price advantage was quickly erased when I went to reserve my seat. On Spirit, if you want a reserved seat you must pay. I had the option of waiting till the day of my flight and being randomly assigned a seat, but I didn’t feel like playing Russian roulette with my seating comfort; so I clicked on the seat map and had to make a decision. Do I pay $7 for a seat in the very back; $13 for something in the middle; $20 for an exit row or $55 for a seat in front which was marketed as the “BIG Front Seat”? I decided to be bold and pay $55 to ride in comfort. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but figured if it is seat 3C then this must be a first-class seat; and it was—sort of.
Spirit didn’t call my seat first class because presumably, that conjures up an image they just could not live up to. The physical seat was indeed the same as a domestic first-class seat on any airline (this Spirit plane was an Airbus A319). It was wider, slightly more comfortable and had two seats together (aisle and window) instead of three; but that is where the comparison ends. The seat didn’t recline; I don’t think any seat on the entire plane did, and it was old and in need of some tender love and care. This last statement was true for the entire aircraft. I came away with the distinct impression that part of Spirit Airlines business model is flying older aircraft or just not paying for repairs or a fully staffed cleaning crew.
In hindsight $55 was ok for the seat because it was at least better than all the others. However, what ticked me off was the $47 charge ($42 if you check-in) to take a carry-on aboard. I have never encountered such a fee before and $47 seemed very high. Beyond that I paid $3 for a bottle of water—they don’t even give you peanuts, but will gladly charge you $4 for an unhealthy equivalent such as Cheez-Its—but avoided the $10 agent fee by checking in online and opted not to pay $8 to “Shortcut Security” (their term not mine) or $5.99 to “Shortcut Boarding”.
Spirit Airlines tries to market themselves as this cute and quirky airline with phrases such as “Home of the Bare Fare” painted on the aircraft engines; but in the end, it is just a third-rate airline that tries to nickel and dime you into submission. Will I fly Spirit again? Yeah probably, if they have the better route or timing, but next time I will know what to expect.