Spirit Airlines’ “$9 Fare Club” is probably one of the most controversial legal travel clubs in the country. Scratch that. It is the most controversial travel club in the country.

The problem isn’t that customers are offered lower fares in exchange for joining the club ($59.95 a year) but that they’re automatically renewed, as per the club’s terms. That’s often a surprise, and it seems to be a scam, at least to some customers. Even scammier: Spirit is reluctant to refund the autorenewed $59.99, even though the customer no longer wants to be part of the club.

Rules, says Spirit, are rules.

Meet Judi Breinin, one of the club’s “victims.” Rather than narrating her story, I’ll just replay the correspondence between her and Spirit.

Here’s her first email to Spirit:

Last year I signed up for the $9 fare club, paid the fee and took my first flight.

It was disastrous. My luggage was lost and the delivery service trekked in mud and dirt into my mother’s home. Since that time I have not flown Spirit.

Imagine my shock when my bank notified me this morning that a charge of $59.95 posted to my account by Spirit. I never authorized this charge and I have instructed the bank to put this in dispute.

I am demanding a credit for this $59.95 debit to my account and an apology for its illegality and dishonesty. What you have done is tantamount to stealing.

And by the way, I have called and waited on the phone for 30 to 40 minutes – then sent to a calling center in India where they say how sorry they are and pass you on to another department, another agent and more and more waiting. What a sorry way to run an airline!

Related: In today’s edition of the smarter consumer, find out how to find any manager’s email address — guaranteed!

Here’s the form response from Spirit:

Thank you for contacting Spirit Airlines about your $9 Fare Club; I’m happy to assist you.

Our records reflect that your membership was not canceled prior to the expiration date, which is why you were automatically charged the annual $59.95 renewal fee. According to the terms and conditions of our $9 Fare Club, which you agreed to when you enrolled, annual fees are non-refundable.

Since I am bound by those conditions you agreed to, I am unable to provide a refund, however, I can issue a credit shell of $59.95 toward a future flight. Please advise, and I’ll be happy to proceed with the credit shell.

Thanks again for contacting Spirit Airlines.

Let me interrupt this little exchange to examine the auto-renew disclosure. It’s in a separate box at the bottom of the sign-up page in small type. You have to scroll down a screen to find it: “Paid memberships will continue and renew based on original membership terms, unless otherwise cancelled.”

That’s the wrong way to do it. Spirit should ask if you want to renew its fare club every year and only do so if specifically asked.

I asked Spirit to take another look at this case.

This is what Spirit sent to Breinin:

Thank you for contacting Spirit Airlines. I regret your disappointment with my response and appreciate the opportunity to address your complaints. Please let this message also serve as a response to your correspondence with travel writer Christopher Elliott, who recently contacted us on your behalf.

I reviewed your booking and I apologize for the inconvenience caused when your luggage was delayed. You received a voucher for $25 toward a future flight that expires on December 21, 2011, and we’d love the chance to serve you again.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer any flexibility regarding the $9 Fare Club renewal fee. It simply wouldn’t be fair to other customers who may have forgotten about the renewal and were correctly charged, as you were. Had you contacted us before August 10th, we would have gladly canceled your membership.

Ms. Breinin, in your response, you state that you never authorized the airline to debit your account for 2011; you allege that we “[stole]” from your account and that this was a “shoddy business dealing.”

I kindly invite you to view the Terms and Conditions you agreed to upon enrollment last year. They’re available online at: https://www.spirit.com/StaticFareClubEnrollment.aspx and in our “Help” section as well. For your convenience, I’ve cut and pasted portions that specifically address your statements.

In Section 3.5.: “One (1) year after Annual enrollment in the Club, and on each anniversary thereafter [August 10, 2011 in your case], Members will be automatically charged an annual fee of $59.95 for membership in the Club. Annual fees are non-refundable, notwithstanding Member’s cancellation of membership in the Club.”

In Section 3.6.: “Initial or renewal membership fees are subject to change by Spirit at any time without notice to the Member. Any increase in the annual membership fee will take effect upon renewal of a Member’s membership.”

In Section 3.7.: “A Member will not be entitled to any refund of any membership fees upon cancellation of membership in the Club.”

In Section 4.1:. “Memberships will automatically renew upon expiration if Member has not cancelled prior to their renewal date. The renewal charge will be assessed to any credit card on file. Spirit will attempt to, but is not obligated to, notify current Members at the email address provided in the Member’s profile prior to charging annual fees on any of Member’s credit card on file provided that Spirit shall not be responsible for any lost, misdirected, bounced, or late delivery of any email sent by Spirit.”

As you authorized Spirit Airlines to automatically renew your membership and debit your Visa card on file, you can see that this was not a dishonest transaction. Customers may cancel their memberships at any time by logging into their accounts and choosing the option to cancel, as you did at 1:26 p.m. on August 22nd.

Once more, as a courtesy, I’ll issue a reservation credit for $59.95 toward a future flight that you may combine with the aforementioned voucher; however, I cannot uphold your request for a refund.

Thank you for writing to Spirit Airlines.

Breinin says she never received the luggage voucher. Here’s her response to Spirit:

This is totally unacceptable. I didn’t sign on for a lifetime membership for the $9 club – just one year. This one flight to Boston cost me, to purchase seats and baggage more money than to fly JetBlue – a reputable airline which has no secret costs.

I joined and flew Spirit once last August and I vowed never again.

Getting an agent online to cancel membership was an impossibility as agents are taught to espouse the party line and the wait to talk to someone in membership was 30 minutes.

I never authorized you to debit my account for 2011 membership in the amount of $59.95. I agreed to conditions for one year and one year only. You never emailed me that my 2010 membership in the club was about to expire, nor asked whether I wanted to renew. You simply took it upon yourselves to steal $59.95 from my account.

Spirit Airlines has done this to many people – many complaints about your shoddy business dealings are posted on the airline complaint forum.

Your offer of a credit shell of $59.95 credit on a future flight on Spirit is not acceptable. As I said before, I have no desire to fly with Spirit ever again and I certainly am not giving you $60 for donation.

I want the amount of $59.95 credited to my account, and my membership cancelled in the $9 club immediately with a written confirmation of this sent to my email address.

OK. You don’t have to be a consumer advocate to think Spirit is wrong about the fare club. You opt in to a program, not out. If you’re going to do something ethically questionable like auto-renew, you disclose it clearly at the top of the page, not in small type at the bottom. And you obviously don’t want to stick someone with a $60 membership they’ll never use.

Still, the credit offer is better than nothing. Or is it?

Update (Oct. 27, 2011): Breinin got her money back. She reports,

I wanted you to know that Bank of America credited me the $60. I’m sure a lot of it can be attributed to the work you did on my behalf. It was never about the money but about the principle. Thanks so much again for your help!

(Photo: jpmat th/Flickr)