Spirit Airlines lands at MSP looking for penny-pinching fliers

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE and WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2012 - 12:29 AM

FILE - In this file photo taken June 13, 2010, a Spirit Airlines airplane sits on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Photo: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press - Ap

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A penny-pinching airline seeking to exploit a market with high air fares will start flying from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this spring.

Spirit Airlines will begin three flights a day from MSP to Chicago-O'Hare and one daily flight to Las Vegas, and the company hinted that it's eyeing additional destinations.

Its entry into the Twin Cities sets up a potential fare war among low-cost carriers, the dominant Delta Air Lines and other major airlines on selected routes.

Spirit boasts that it's an "ultra" low-cost carrier, and its pricing system and services reflect it.

"We look at every penny," spokeswoman Misty Pinson said Wednesday morning at the airport's Humphrey Terminal 2. "We look at everything that does not affect the safety."

It tries to undercut other airlines by charging low base fares and then adds fees for everything from carry-on bags to snacks. It fits more passengers into a plane with more cramped seating -- 178 seats on an Airbus where another carrier might seat 160.

Seatguru.com, which reviews airline seating, said some Spirit planes have featured "the least amount of space of all U.S. domestic carriers."

The arrival of Spirit, which will fly out of the same terminal with other low-cost carriers, was hailed by airport officials who have tried to boost competition at MSP. The airport has been criticized for having some of the nation's highest fares.

Metropolitan Airports Commission Executive Director Jeffrey Hamiel said Wednesday that MSP continues to press low-cost carrier JetBlue to begin flying there.

As part of its rollout May 31 at MSP, Spirit will offer $9 base fares in June that will total $28.79 with fees and taxes. The fares are one-way based on a round-trip purchase.

But extra charges can add up. Even in the world of low-cost airlines, Spirit claims a special place. In a tradeoff designed to hold down base ticket fees, it typically charges $30 for a carry-on bag, defined as luggage that fits in an overhead compartment. Southwest, Airtran and Sun Country -- Spirit's low-cost competitors at Humphrey -- do not charge carry-on fees.

"We're all about choice," Pinson said, adding that the airline's "a la carte" service "gives the customer the opportunity to pick and choose what they want."

The penny-pinching applies to the corporate office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she said executives "take out their own garbage."

Josh Trujillo of Shakopee said he's been a Spirit pilot for several years and appreciates how the carry-on fees make the airline more efficient. Because the policy effectively discourages carry-ons, planes can be boarded and emptied faster so "there's very minimal time on the ground at the gate," Trujillo said in a phone interview.

"Sometimes they'll turn an airplane [around] in 25 minutes," he said.

The airline also saves fuel "by encouraging us to taxi on the ground on one engine," he said.

'We're always looking'

Spirit began operating a couple of decades ago but launched its "ultra" low-cost approach after a restructuring a few years ago. It flies to dozens of domestic locations, including New York, Washington, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland.

It also flies to cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Pinson declined to say whether the airline was planning to fly from MSP to locations other than Chicago and Las Vegas, but added, "We're always looking."

In Chicago, Spirit will directly compete with United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta at O'Hare. Southwest and Delta fly to Chicago-Midway. In Las Vegas, Spirit will compete with Sun Country, Delta and US Airways.

Terry Trippler, owner of the website theplanerules.com, said he thinks Spirit's entry into MSP will lower fares. "Anytime you get another airline, it's a good deal," Trippler said. "You can bet the other airlines will be competitive."

But don't expect a huge drop in fares as a result of Spirit Airlines, said FareCompare's CEO Rick Seaney. That's because Spirit has limited flights out of MSP and the airline markets to a different type of customer, one that values ultra-low fares.

Major airlines "treat them as an outlier," Seaney said.

Or as Pinson put it, "We look at ... Best Buy as our competition, as well: if someone is making the choice between buying a new washing machine or taking a trip to Vegas."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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