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Spirit Airlines makes no bones about no-frills approach

by ERIN MULVANEY Houston Chronicle on May 18, 2014 1:20 AM

On a Spirit Airlines flight, passengers should expect less legroom and narrow aisles. They shouldn’t expect WiFi or personal television screens. Any luggage brought along or beverage consumed will cost extra.

The fares, however, are on average 40 percent cheaper than other carriers, even with the extra fees.

Spirit executives make no apologies for this low-fare, high-fee model, despite a recent report showing the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based carrier had three times as many customer complaints than other U.S. carriers.

The problem, they say, is customers not understanding the model.

“With prices going up and up and up, we are providing an opportunity to give options to our customers,” Mark Kopczak, Spirit’s vice president for network planning, said Thursday during a visit to Houston. “Why charge customers for something they are not going to use? Why should you pay for someone else to check their bag? Our model allows us to pass the savings along to the customer.”

This year, Spirit will almost double its presence in Houston, with five new flights starting in August and September at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Spirit currently flies to Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Orlando. In August, it will offer nonstop flights to Kansas City, New Orleans and Atlanta, and it will add service to San Diego and Fort Lauderdale in September. Spirit also flies out of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe.

“We are adding new airplanes and putting new dots on the map,” he said. “Houston is an area that is good for us, and we believe we’re good for Houston.”

The airline is expanding at hubs around the country and has plans to add more airplanes, expanding its fleet from 57 to 143 over the next decade.

“We are looking for places where fares have tended to go higher. Travelers just don’t have the same options as they did in the past,” he said. “We bring them back into an affordable option to travel.”

Buying a seat only

The Spirit model offers a “bare” fee that is typically 50 percent lower than the average carrier’s ticket price. For that price, the customer is paying for a seat. Extra legroom, checked or carry-on bags and extras like soft drinks on board are offered a la carte. Those “options” average about $25 each. The Spirit executives say that, even with those extras, the price to fly is 40 percent lower than other carriers.

The airline is not for high-end business travelers, who get free first-class upgrades and rack up frequent-flier miles, that most airlines hope to attract.

“The thing that makes our model interesting is we provide a different option,” Kopczak said. “It’s not designed for everyone. It’s for those priced out of other airlines.”

Spirit was the industry leader in customer complaints over the last five years, with a rate of complaints to the Department of Transportation three times higher than other U.S. airlines, according to a recent report from U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

A message to deliver

Executives from Spirit have been touring the country to educate their employees at every level about how to be transparent and explain to customers how the carrier differs from its competitors. The airline has also revamped its website and included an section explaining how the system works.

John Bendoraitis, senior vice president and chief operating officer, said the Spirit model allows customers to pick and choose the options they want to pay for, and customers need to understand the model before taking off.

“What we have seen in the consumer data is those that come back and fly us again rate us much higher than the first time because they understand the model better,” Bendoraitis said.

Spirit said the model appears to be working, and its planes this summer will be 90 percent full.

More summer travelers

Airlines for America, which represents U.S.-based airlines including Spirit, predicts that summer travel will rise to its highest level in six years, with about 210 million passengers flying between June 1 to Aug. 31, up 1.5 percent from 2013.

The price to fly per mile increased 0.8 percent from last year, although the industry group noted that personal incomes rose 2.8 percent during that time. XXX - End of Story3D>

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