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OPINION - Spirit Airlines

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) With this latest round of snow, I’m ready for a vacation. I’ll be flying out this weekend. And I’m anticipating a fascinating flight out of Minneapolis.

For the first time, I’ll be flying on Spirit Airlines. If you don’t know about Spirit, you should.

Their Chief Operating Officer Ben Baldanza proudly says they’re the McDonalds of the airline industry. They offer very low prices but bare-bones service. On Spirit, you pay a rock-bottom fare, but you pay extra for everything else.

On my flight, Spirit underpriced American, United, and Delta by $129.

I’ve read up on Spirit, so I know what to expect. I’ll be charged $29 if I bring a carry-on bag. It’s $34 for a checked bag. $15 to pick my own reserved seat instead being assigned one by the airline. $50 for a larger seat in the front of the plane. $3 for water or a soda onboard. $6 for an in-flight snack. The business model is that you pick – and pay for – what you need. And you save money for the things you decide aren’t important. My choices: I want to pick my own seat (so I can sit with my travel companion), and I need a checked bag. So, on line, I’ve made my choices and was charged an extra $49 in fees.

It’s very clear that you need to know the rules before you fly Spirit, which are all spelled out on its web site. If you show up at the airport with an extra bag, you’ll pay $100. If you bring an extra carry-on that you didn’t pay for in advance, you’ll pay another $100. And everything is cheaper if you arrange for it on-line. You'll pay a fee if you actually have to interact with a Spirit employee, including having them print your boarding pass.

I’m curious about what the boarding process is like. On a flight of 120 people, there are bound to be a few “Spirit newbies” who didn’t read the web site closely and will be surprised at the add-on charges that they’ll have to pay before they get into the plane. I can imaging tempers rising as people surrender what they thought was vacation spending money.

And, actually, I don’t have a problem with this. This airline is different. They’re up-front about their business model. If you expect to be able to carry-on extra luggage of if half a can of soda and a tiny package of peanuts is important to you, then you should fly one of the legacy carriers.

But I can already tell that there are things I won’t like about Spirit. Spirit airline’s seat pitch -- the amount of leg room you get -- is 28 inches. Their seats don’t recline. Their tray tables don’t extend. It’s the tightest fit of any airline. The industry standard is 31 inches in coach and 36 in first class. Those extra inches in each row add up over the length of an airplane. Spirit gets 178 seats in its standard Airbus A-320; Delta and American have 154 seats on the same plane. I’m anticipating a very cramped flight.

Spirit also brags about the efficient scheduling of its fleet. Their planes average 13-hours-a-day in-flight, compared to the typical 9-hours-a-day for other airlines. (“A plane makes no money when it’s on the ground,” COO Baldanza bragged in an interview.) In also leads to very tight schedules. I’ve been tracking the on-time performance of my flight for the last week – it’s been delayed 5 of the last 7 days. Cancelled flights are problematic for Spirit. They don’t have re-booking agreements with other airlines, so you’ll have to wait for their next plane. If the next flight is sold-out, you’ll continue to wait.

I’ve joked for years that flying is not much different than Greyhound with wings. And while I’m saving some money, I’d bet Spirit will prove me right.

Chris Conley

Image: Spirit Airlines at Oakland International Airport via Wikicommons.com