When it comes to customer service, travel companies constantly push the limits with fees, surcharges and onerous policies. No industry does it more than the airlines, and no domestic airline does it more than Spirit Airlines, the small Florida-based carrier known for its risque ads and creative extras.
But consider what happened to Spirit last week, when the carrier made two decisions that drew an immense amount of publicity, much of it unexpected.
Within a few news cycles, it denied a dying war veteran a refund on a ticket he couldn’t use, standing its ground because the ticket was nonrefundable. It also quietly raised its fees for carry-on luggage (that’s right, carry-on luggage) to as much as $100, effective this fall.
It’s difficult to overstate the public reaction. A Facebook petition to boycott Spirit mushroomed, garnering more than 40,000 “likes.” Air travelers slammed the carrier as heartless and greedy.
Can you guess which of those issues Spirit relented on?
No, not the carry-on fees. It fully refunded Jerry Meekins’s fare. “I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country,” a contrite Ben Baldanza, Spirit’s chief executive, said in a prepared statement. He made a $5,000 contribution in Meekins’s name to a charity for disabled veterans.
Spirit is hardly the first airline to back down after crossing a line. Just a few days after the Meekins incident, United Airlines changed its policy on transporting dogs after the owner of a pit bull collected more than 45,000 protest signatures online. Jessie Huart blasted United for banning some dogs from flying based on their breed, essentially suggesting that they were pet racists. United relented, issuing a brief statement that it will “now accept previously restricted breeds of dogs.”
What made Spirit — what makes any airline, for that matter — reverse a decision? The answer raises some troubling issues, not only for summer air travelers but also for government regulators.
An airline will often back down in the face of unanimous opposition to one of its policies. But the reaction to Spirit’s announcement about higher carry-on fees wasn’t unanimous. Beginning Nov. 6, the airline will raise most of its nine carry-on bag fees by either $5 or $10, and one — for carry-ons that are declared at the gate — will leap from $45 to $100. Many passengers and TV talking heads were angry, but some air travelers supported the idea. “I think Spirit is on the right track with its carry-on fee,” says Joan Mohan, an instructor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “Watching people competing for overhead space is annoying and time-consuming.”
Most Spirit customers know that the airline bases its business model on fees, and they seem prepared to accept it. Despite its reputation as a complaint factory, Spirit drew only 58 formal grievances to the Transportation Department in February, the latest month for which numbers are available. That’s far more than it should have, considering how small it is, but nowhere near the numbers some of its critics had suggested. The previous month, it had drawn 59 grievances. (I keep an informal tally of such complaints; Spirit’s numbers are high but in line with those of other discount airlines with a thing for fees.)