Spirit’s Baldanza: “We don’t force customers to pay for services they don’t want or need”

Spirit's Ben Baldanza. / Photo courtesy Spirit.
Spirit Airlines is at it again — first denying a dying war veteran a ticket refund, then announcing it would raise its fee for carrying a bag on its flight to $100. Passengers are outraged. A Facebook petition to boycott the carrier is gaining momentum.

At a time like this, I like to hand the mike over to Ben Baldanza, the airline’s CEO. I did this morning, but his handlers said he couldn’t answer my questions by phone. Here’s a transcript of our awkward email interview.

Ben, there’s a lot of talk about the $100 carry-on charge that’s taking effect this fall. I understand fuel prices are high, but does it cost Spirit $100 to transport a carry-on bag?

We don’t want any of our customers to wait until they get to the boarding gate to pay for their carry-on bags as this delays the boarding process for everyone. We expect that our new $100 fee charged for those who wait until they get to the gate will ensure that customers purchase their bags before arriving at the gate.

Our new bag fees, which go into effect November 6, 2012, have a simplified pricing structure with the same price for both domestic and international travel. International checked bag fees are lower.

Our pricing continues to offer customers savings and time at the airport if they book their bags in advance on spirit.com. By encouraging self-service, Spirit is able to lower our costs and pass those savings along to customers by way of low fares.

What’s the reaction been to your decision, and what do you make of it?

Baldanza did not respond to this question.

You’ve been critical of the Transportation Department’s new airfare regulations, which require better disclosure on fees and compel airlines to quote an “all-in” fare that includes taxes — you say they force airlines to hide taxes. Is this decision a reaction to the regulation?

The latest DOT fare rules mandate airlines to hide the government’s taxes and fees in the fare.

We believe that the better form of transparency is to break out costs so customers know exactly what they are buying. Customers have a right to know how much of their fare goes toward government taxes and fees rather than hiding it in the fare.

How important are ancillary revenues generated from baggage fees and other items to your business model? What should your passengers know about Spirit’s business model, and how it differs from full service, legacy carriers?

Spirit offers the most consumer-friendly model because we offer ultra low fares and give customers the option to choose the add-ons they want and they only pay for those they want/use. Unlike many other airlines, we don’t force customers to pay for services they don’t want or need.

I wanted to ask you about rules and when they should be waived. You had a passenger, Jerry Meekins, who made some news over the weekend when he asked for a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, and was turned down. Is there ever a time when an airline should bend its rules? And if so, when?

We care about each and every one of our millions of customers. We help them all save money with our low fares and the option to choose the add-on they want, and they only pay for those they choose.

We receive many requests every day from customers facing unexpected situations. Many customers take advantage of the affordable travel insurance we offer to cover a variety of unexpected situations that may arise. In fairness to all of our customers, we don’t make exceptions to our policies.

Note: I was disappointed by these canned answers from Baldanza, and because of my tight deadline, I had no opportunity to follow up to them.

I’ve seen this before — back in 2002, legacy airlines like the now-defunct Northwest instituted a policy of “no waivers, no favors” in a foolish attempt to boost revenues. It just upset customers.

I think consumers deserve better responses than those Baldanza has offered. I hope he’ll agree to answer for his recent decisions in the near future. Meantime, I hope he doesn’t mind a little criticism. He’s got it coming.

Update (5/4): A few hours after this interview was published, Spirit reversed course, offering Meekins a full refund.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/FK5OXY2R42OKUYBYJKBDWXSLHU Peanut_Quacker

    I have and will be voting with my feet and my closed wallet; I am walking away from their ticket counter and spending my $$ elsewhere.

  • http://twitter.com/bravotango31 Bravo Tango

    Just make sure you bring more $$, as you will be paying more.

  • Bernard Rappoport

    He outwore his welcome years ago at US Airways. Not liked by his co-workers and not a team player.  My father and grandfather were veterans…so I wish they could have helped Jim…but…in all fairness..how much was the refund…and since Spirit only takes credit cards…and a c/c refund would take 1 or 2 billing cycles…was Jim expecting the money to reach him in Heaven?

  • Matthew Walters

    deleted by poster

  • y_p_w

    I don’t think it’s simply the total cost (and it might very well be possible to get an overall lower cost with Spirit) but that there are many reports that their employees tend to treat their customers with barely hidden or outright contempt.

    As much as some people detest Southwest Airlines for their seating policy, I’ve universally found their employees to be at least outwardly pleasant.  Sometimes I’d even say it was fun.  There are just too many complaints about Spirit for me to even take a chance.

  • y_p_w
  • Nasty_Fresh

    And yet they will fill all of their planes for the foreseeable future.  I have to say Chris, I love your faux outrage.

  • Michelle C

    Do they have pay for use toilets yet?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hudson/1793263283 John Hudson

    Spirit is no bargain.  I priced a fare from Phoenix to Las Vegas.
    Southwest all in fare was $119.60. This was comparing flights that operated on the same day and approx the same time.
    Spirit on the other hand was $236.  This is with one carry one, one checked bag and a seat assignment.,  If you dont want the seat assignment subtract $36.  Lousy service, lousy fares, uncaring staff.
    Why fly them at all?

  • politicaljules

    Southwest airlines is my first choice anyway

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OASMSP2X45YU6WIUSM7PASNHAU Bryan

    Except when you add up all the “extra” fees, their price is often the same or higher than you get from a real airline.  And, since Spirit doesn’t do interline agreements, a cancelled flight on Spirit can end up costing a traveller hundreds of dollars just to get home.

  • Nauzer

    Spirits again? bad customer service! low prices? R u kidding? they charge you for every single luggage that you take with you, so U end it up paying the same $ as any other airline. I bought a online ticket for my brother from Flori…da to Bogota, Colombia, the ticket was issued under my name, I called Spirit several times to ask for help, my brother went to Mira Mar, FL and he spoke to Nurca, who told my brother, that she would help him only if I would not call so many times to customer service!!! That means, that they were able to change the ticket into his name, but they did not do it JUST BECAUSE I called the “great” customer service that they have in Costa Rica……. We lost the money of the ticket ($600), we could not even get a ticket voucher to use it toward the new ticket, so we had to buy a second ticket for my brother with Jet Blue, great airline, by the way!

  • Michelle B.

    I think the CEO mistyped when he said he cares about their millions of passengers. I think that should have been tens of passengers.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Of course, you do realize that I’d rather pay a little more and be treated like a human.  Cattle probably have a better trip to the meat packing plant than most of Spirit’s “customers”.   Moooooooooo!

  • jim6555

    And hopefully, the number of passengers will soon decline from tens to zero.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Credit card refunds dont’ have to take 1 to 2 billing cycles except possibly to show up on the paper statement.  CC refunds that i’ve received generally take about 5 days.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     While I wouldn’t go near Spirit myself, I can respect that some flyers may be on very limited budgets.  If you must, with a little planning and sacrifice, you can price a trip on Spirit that can’t be beat.

    A buddy of mine needed a ticket from Vegas to LAX (long story).  I got him a one way ticket on Spirit for 34 dollars including all taxes and fees. He was able to squeeze everything into a bag that fit under the seat.  No checked bags, no seat assignment, no carry-on charge.

    In that case Spirit’s business model worked out well for all concerned.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I’d rather have a colonoscopy, a root canal, and a prostate exam on the same day than fly Spirit.

    [Wait, that might give the TSA ideas…]

  • Raven_Altosk

    It’s probably coming.
    These guys would charge you for the TSA frisk if they could.

  • TonyA_says

    “and yet the customers keep coming …”

    For the first quarter 2012 (ending 31MAR), Spirit’s total operating revenue was $301.5 million, an increase of $68.8 million, or  29.6 percent, compared to first quarter 2011. Increased capacity (available seat miles) and a network reorientation in mid-2011 that added capacity in Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Las Vegas contributed to the increase in operating revenues.

    Total revenue per available seat mile (“RASM”) increased to 11.65 cents, up 10.1 percent compared to the first quarter 2011, driven primarily by higher operating yields which were up 9.1 percent and a load factor increase of 0.8 points to 84.8 percent.  

    Total revenue per passenger flight segment (“PFS”) for the first quarter 2012 was $128.33, an increase of 2.7 percent as compared to the first quarter 2011. Spirit has continued its strategy to stimulate traffic by offering low base fares while increasing revenue from non-ticket sources. Average non-ticket revenue for the first quarter 2012 increased 21.3 percent year-over-year to over $50 ($51.68) per PFS, with average ticket revenue per PFS for the quarter decreasing 6.9 percent year-over-year to $76.65.

  • Jose Cruz

    Spirit has the same business models that the dollar stores have.  They make you think you are getting a bargain, when in reality you are not. 

  • http://twitter.com/bharrier Bill Harrier

    When Spirit was newer, I took 2 or 3 RT flights from Tampa to Detroit. Then, it was a real value and a pleasant trip. Once they began adding fees for almost everything, I ended the relationship. At times I compare the costs, and the legacy airlines win. For a group trip from Tampa to Dominican Republic in 2011, I compared both. Delta won as we had no fees for carry-on OR checked bags. Of course the middle of the night arrival/departure times in the D.R. for Spirit was a major factor as well. No spirit from me for Spirit.

  • BillCCC

    While the fees could be considered quite ridiculous I have just been on the Spirit website and they are clearly identified. The $100.00 is only if you pay at the airport at the check in counter. Still outrageous but you can purchase much more cheaply in advance.  I have always said that a consumer can change company behaiviour with their wallet.

  • azevedan

    Those “government taxes” go to fund the airport runways you take off from and land on, the navigation aids that get you where you need to go, and the Air Traffic Organization that helps get you there. Putz.

  • cjr001

    “Baldanza did not respond to this question.”


    “The latest DOT fare rules mandate airlines to hide the government’s taxes and fees in the fare.”

    Bald-faced lie.

    The rest of it is typical corporate BS speak.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Including doesn’t mean hiding. Airlines still have to itemized the taxes/fees collected on the ticket. In the contrary, Not-Including all the taxes/fees in he prize is HIDING the real cost of the ticket for purpose of false and deception advertising.

  • Lindabator

    But it CAN work out for some folks – it is just that you need to know the costs ahead of time, and decide what is workable for you — if you need to travel for a business meeting, and are only bringing a laptop and change of clothes, it may fit your needs better than a legacy carrier’s business class fare.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m personally not a fan, but there are times they are the only realistic option for some people.  (Same as using EasyJet in Europe!)

  • IGoEverywhere

    You get what you pay for. Death of the passenger is the only refund that is assued by the airlines across the board.  Baldanza and Spirit have made it black and white. There are no exceptions, there are no questions. If you want a cheap ticket and are carrying on a purse, then fly them. When you want free bags, fly Southwest. When you want schedules and convenience, hand over your credit card. But don’t blame the airline or CEO for a product that is really doing pretty well. People Express of the past century started this mess, and If you buy, you buy…..but have buyer’s regret.

  • y_p_w

    Well – the dollar stores in many ways can be a real bargain for the informed consumer.

    A lot of what they sell is no-name stuff that’s every bit as good as the brand names, or odd brand-name stuff that didn’t sell for some reason or another and was bought on the cheap.

    I’ve priced similar quality items, and dollars stores are at least competitive and often much better priced.

    However, what you get with airlines is hit or miss.  Their costs are pretty much fixed so there isn’t that much they can do other than some efficiency improvements.  What Spirit does is just rejigger the pricing structure.

  • TonyA_says

     Great Explanation!

  • TonyA_says

    LOL. I have done all of the above, multiple times, EXCEPT fly on Spirit. I guess I’m lucky.

  • S363

    I’ve never flown Spirit, and never will.  

  • Michelle C

    And for the rest of us who don’t want to sit next to someone who wore the same underwear for their entire trip we will be buying with another airline.    

  • sershev

    This is how checked bag fees started: First was Spirit, then American, then all others. Spirit was first to charge for carry ons, now Allegiant joined the club, which airline will be next? I personally dislike Spirit Air for a number of reasons and would rather to pay more and give my business elsewhere else.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Looks like Spirit has had a change of heart: http://ir.spirit.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=670600

  • Franklin B. Bruner,Sr.

    I have a simplified non-purchase plan in place for Sprite airlines.USE SOMEONE ELSE! Take THE TRAIN! !00.00 each way for carry-on, yeah—right.

  • TonyA_says

     Personally refund? Meaning it wasn’t from Spirit’s pocket?

  • Kevin Moller

    Ben comments “The latest DOT fare rules mandate airlines to hide the government’s taxes and fees in the fare.”  Ben skips right over pointing out that it allows Spirit to hide its own fees to the consumer as well.  A recent flight from DTW-LAS has an “Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations” fee of $3.72 and a “Passenger Usage Fee” of $33.98.  Those aren’t ‘hidden’ government fees, those are Spirit’s hidden fees.

    The fee to check-in and print a boarding pass at the airport is also another $$ grab by Spirit.  When I travel I sometimes do have access to a computer and printer at my destination, but generally I don’t.  On a return segment, flying Spirit would cost me $2.00 to print at a kiosk at the airport, $5.00 if the agent had to print it for me.  And it’s not like you can clear security or board the plane without the document. 

    I’m just waiting for Spirit to implement a charge for the privilege of using an oxygen mask or life vest.  In the unlikely event of an emergency, please insert your credit card… 

  • Raven_Altosk

    So, they’re giving the poor guy his money back now?
    Looks like a lot of bad press and some egg on the face does wonders for Spirit’s bad spirit!

  • cjr001

    It just shows that businesses DO NOT CARE unless faced with a bunch of bad PR. Then and only then do they decide to fact.

    The fact that this WILL happen again shows that, no, there’s no change of heart.

  • Jesse Briglia

    For $14…Mr. Meekins could have purchased himself Spirit’s Optional Flight/Trip Interruption Insurance. Certainly a man with his frail uncertain health condition could have wisely and prudently acted in his own best interests in that regard. He chose not to. I agree with Spirit. As emotional and heart-wrenching as Mr. Meekin’s situation is….there are LOADS of flyers with similar stories and circumstances. Spirit has every right to deny Mr. Meekins’ refund. They are running a business and you have the right to either do business with them or without them. You purchased a ticket knowing full well what the rules and policies were when you bought it….including choosing NOT to purchase insurance when it was offered! Why should Spirit bend their rule? Purchase Insurance and TAKE CARE OF YOUSELF! STOP BLAMING OTHERS FOR WHAT IS ULTIMATELY YOUR RESPONSIILITY! Sadly…Spirit caved in the the left-leaning liberal Media and capitulated a refund and changed their policy….which will increase costs to all. Yet another example of how our society is dumbing down as another example of our “entitlement mentality” rears it’s ugly head. You are sick. You know you are sick. Things can happen. BUY INSURANCE TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN ACTIONS. Don’t blame Spirit….blame yourself. 

  • http://blogs.ocweekly.com/stickaforkinit Dave Lieberman

    “The latest DOT fare rules mandate airlines to hide the government’s taxes and fees in the fare.”

    Bollocks. Complete and utter bollocks. Surely Mr Baldanza has an entire staff of IT folks who could design a webpage for him that printed the all-in fare in big numbers, with a large link that says, “CLICK HERE TO SEE HOW THIS BREAKS DOWN” or “CLICK HERE TO SEE HOW FAR THE GOVERNMENT HAS YOU BENT OVER” or whatever.

    He’d rather snivel instead. I’d sooner take Amtrak than Spirit.