One hundred bucks to check a bag at the gate? That irritates Bethany Simmons and a lot of other Spirit Airlines customers.
But that’s not why Simmons resolved never to fly Spirit again until it changes its ways. On a recent flight from Chicago to Minneapolis to visit relatives, she endured a six-hour delay because of mechanical difficulties with no apologies from the airline.
Instead of food vouchers, she said, passengers were treated to several sales pitches for the Spirit credit card. Instead of courtesy rebooking on another airline, passengers were offered a US Air flight for $250.
“Every other airline that I’ve been on bends over backward to get you where you’re going and compensate for the delay,” she said. “But Spirit has no partnering airline to put you on. If there were negative star ratings, I would give them as many as I could.”
Along with Spirit’s ultra-low-fare business model comes one of the worst on-time records of any airline. Nationwide, the on-time average is 80 percent, according to the Department of Transportation. At Spirit, 64 percent of all of its flights arrived on time, according to Flightstats.com. Comparatively, Delta has an on-time average of 82 percent and Sun Country 75 percent.
In the Twin Cities, where Spirit is rapidly adding routes, the number of its flights arriving on-time from here ranged from 48 to 62 percent from June 15 to Aug. 15, according to Flightstats.
“Those are dismal numbers,” said George Hobica of Airplanewatchdog.com. “I would think twice about flying an airline with an on-time record lower than 70 percent.”
Asked about Spirit’s on-time performance out of MSP, communications director Misty Pinson responded via e-mail, “Getting our customers where they need to go and on time is an important priority for us.”
Experts generally recommend looking for a flight with an on-time performance near 80 percent or higher. But almost no consumers check the on-time performance of their airline, let alone the individual flight they’re taking, said Hobica. (It can be done at www.flightstats.com.) If a passenger isn’t in a hurry, it might not be important. But if they have a connection, it’s a big deal, he said.
Peter Greenberg, travel expert and author of “The Complete Travel Detective Bible,” said the delays are the result of a lack of flexibility in Spirit’s fleet of 51 planes. If a flight is in the middle or the end of the plane’s nine or 10 legs that day, the chances of being on time are smaller, he said. An early delay will affect all flights for that plane the rest of the day.
While the same could be said for any plane on any airline, the problem becomes worse on Spirit because it does not have as many extra planes on call. If one of Spirit’s planes has to be taken out of service, it can mean hours of delay for everyone booked on the plane that day. The best option on any airline is to take the first flight of the day, especially if the plane overnighted at MSP, Greenberg said.
Lacks sister airline
Pinson said that Spirit “develops our schedule in such a way and have crew and maintenance bases located throughout our system in order to efficiently maintain the service to our aircraft,” but she did not comment directly on a whether there are planes “on call.”
Spirit’s Spartan approach also means that passengers on canceled or delayed flights can’t look to a sister airline to whisk them away. If you’re bumped on a flight, it could mean not flying to your destination that day or for several days. Spirit, like Southwest and a few other airlines, does not have interline agreements with other airlines. Still, Spirit sometimes will purchase tickets on other airlines to accommodate customers if a flight is canceled, said Pinson.
Spirit’s big selling point is that it’s the least expensive airline. Spirit’s low fares ($118 round trip to Chicago next weekend, $350 on Delta and Sun Country) keep planes full, though passengers pay extra for things like carry-on luggage or picking their own seat. In fact, the airline will add service in November from MSP to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Orlando and Tampa.
Many have argued that the fees eat up the fare savings, but travel gurus such as Greenberg say Spirit’s overall prices are still lower. In the first quarter of the year, Spirit’s average one-way fare was $75, according to CEO Ben Baldanza.
For many passengers, the low price trumps the multitudinous fees and flight delays. “Many customers can afford to fly only on Spirit,” said Hobica. “They hate it, and yet they keep on buying.”