Planet Money
1:52 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Spirit Airlines Taps A Nation Of Hate Fliers

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 10:29 pm

Spirit Airlines is one of the fastest-growing airlines in America. Last week, we flew Spirit from New York to Fort Lauderdale for $68.99 each. Cheap!

But that doesn't count fees. We paid $30 extra to pick our seats ahead of time. Once you're on the plane, a bottle of water costs $3. Even putting a bag in the overhead bin costs money on Spirit.

Somewhere between New York and Florida, the guy sitting across the aisle from us leaned over and said, "This sucks."

"I had to ask them if they charge to go to the bathroom," he said. "This is the first time we used Spirit, and it's gonna be the last time we use Spirit."

We were going to Fort Lauderdale to talk to Ben Baldanza, Spirit's CEO. He doesn't pretend that Spirit is a fancy airline.

"We're not even Wal-Mart," he said. "We're Dollar General. And we like being Dollar General, because we save people lots of money."

When you buy a ticket on Spirit all you're paying for is the transportation. Everything else is extra. All that free stuff you get on other airlines — like, say, checked bags — isn't really free.

"It's expensive to carry bags," Baldanza said. "You hire people to load the bags. You pay for bag belts in the airports ... you either charge the people who use it, or you charge everybody whether they use it or don't. And we think it's fairer to charge customers for what they use, and not charge them for what they don't use."

But paying for every little thing when they get on an airplane isn't something people are used to. And when they get on Spirit and find out, they don't like it.

Last year, Consumer Reports did a survey of thousands of U.S. fliers. Spirit finished dead last. In fact, Consumer Reports said Spirit's rating was among the lowest of any company it has ever rated.

"That survey never asks people about the price of their ticket," Baldanza said. "Why doesn't Consumer Reports put out a survey that says a Mercedes S-Class is better than a Ford Focus?"

On our trip, we met people who liked Spirit's cheap fares and had figured out how to avoid the fees. We also met lots of people who were surprised and angry about the way the airline worked.

It turns out, there's also a third category of Spirit flier: the hate flier.

The hate flier is the guy who knows what he's getting into, doesn't like it, but flies Spirit anyway because it's so cheap.

On our flight back to New York, a bunch of the passengers around us said they'd never fly Spirit again. Barbara Dingus, flight attendant on the plane, didn't buy it.

"Why are our flights all full? Because those people come back," she says. "People complain, they get off. I remember faces. They get back on."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

America fastest growing airline is also among the least popular airline, Spirit Airlines. Zoe Chace and Jacob Goldstein, of our Planet Money team, recently took a trip on Spirit hoping to figure out how one airline could be both things at once.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: We're at LaGuardia Airport in New York. It's very early in the morning.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Yes, it is.

GOLDSTEIN: And we're going to fly on Spirit Airlines to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

CHACE: And it cost us $68 to fly from here to Fort Lauderdale?

GOLDSTEIN: Sixty-eight dollars and ninety-nine cents. But...

CHACE: But, but everywhere you turn on Spirit there are fees.

GOLDSTEIN: We paid 30 bucks to pick our seats ahead of time.

CHACE: If you want water on the plane, it will cost you $3.

GOLDSTEIN: And then there are the bag fees.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're allowed one personal item. You can't have two. So that's going to be $50.

GOLDSTEIN: It's 50 bucks to carry-on.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: And what if I check it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's 45.

GOLDSTEIN: It's 45.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AIRPLANE)

GOLDSTEIN: There are more seats on this plane than usual so there's less leg room.

CHACE: How are your knees?

GOLDSTEIN: If the guy in front of me were to put his seat back, I'd be screwed. The good news is on Spirit Airlines, you cannot put your seat back.

(LAUGHTER)

CHACE: Chris Petrizzio, across the aisle from us leans, over and whispers, into my ear, this seat sucks.

Tell me.

CHRIS PETRIZZIO: I had to ask them if they charge to go the bathroom. They charge for coffee. This is the first time we've used Spirit and it's going to be the last time we use Spirit.

GOLDSTEIN: We're flying to Fort Lauderdale to talk to Ben Baldanza, Spirit's CEO. When we get there, we ask him, what kind of an airline is this?

BEN BALDANZA: Well, if we were a retailer we would maybe - some high service airlines in the world would think of themselves as a Nordstrom's or something. I bet if you were going to talk to the guys at JetBlue, they'd say maybe we're a Target, or maybe even trying to be called better than Target.

GOLDSTEIN: We're Dollar General. That's what we are. We're not even Wal-Mart.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Alright? OK. We're Dollar General. And we like being Dollar General because we save people lots of money.

CHACE: When you buy a ticket on Spirit, all you're paying for is a trip to wherever you're going. Everything else is extra. Ben Baldanza says that free stuff you get on other airlines, it's not really free.

BALDANZA: There's an airline out there - and I'm sure you know their name - that spends a lot of money telling you that their bags are free. But their average tickets are 50 to $60 higher than ours. It's expensive to carry bags. You hire people to load the bags, you pay for bag belts in the airports and the rental space to do that. Every once in a while you lose a bag or you break a bag, so you have to have insurance to cover that.

It is not free to carry bags, so you either charge the people who use it or you charge everybody whether they use it or don't. And we think it's fairer to charge customers for what they use and not charge them for what they don't use.

GOLDSTEIN: But lots of people just expect an airline to be a certain way. And when they get on Spirit and find out they're basically on a flying bus, they don't like it.

CHACE: Last year, Consumer Reports did a survey of thousands of U.S. flyers. Spirit finished dead last. In fact, Consumer Reports said Spirit's rating was among the lowest of any company they've ever rated.

GOLDSTEIN: Ben Baldanza has a lot to say about Consumer Reports.

BALDANZA: They're elitist. And I will tell you why. That survey never asked people about the price of their ticket. And since they don't ask about the price, it's absolute bunk. Why doesn't Consumer Reports put out a survey saying that a Mercedes S Class is better than a Ford Focus? It's true. The Mercedes S Class is better than a Ford Focus. So why doesn't everybody buy a Mercedes S Class?

GOLDSTEIN: On our trip, we talked to some people who liked Spirit's super cheap fares, and who figured out how to avoid the fees. And we talked to a lot of people seemed surprised and angry and said they'd never fly Spirit again.

CHACE: As it turns out, there is a third category of Spirit flyer.

GOLDSTEIN: It's the hate-flyer. This is the guy who knows what he's getting into, who doesn't like it but who can't help himself. He flies Spirit 'cause it's just too good of a deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AIRPLANE)

CHACE: On our flight back to New York, Barbara Dingus, our flight attendant, says, yeah, that's exactly who's on this plane; people who say they'll never fly Spirit again. But...

BARBARA DINGUS: I guarantee you they'll be back. Why are our flights all full? Because those people come back. They're getting mad because they have to, you know, get their credit card out or whatever, and they think they're going to get everything for free. Trust me, I know enough to know that people complain, they get off. I remember faces. They come back on.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a weird market, the hate-flyers market.

CHACE: But apparently, underserved. Spirit is adding new planes, flying new routes and growing by about 20 percent a year.

GOLDSTEIN: On Spirit Airlines Flight 710, somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and New York, I'm Jacob Goldstein.

And I'm Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.