9 August, 2013

I traveled to Chicago last week.  In advance of my trip, I went to the Orbitz site to find the best airfare, which hands-down was Spirit Airlines.

I’d never flown Spirit, which I knew to be a no-frills airline, but NYC to Chicago is a relatively short flight so no snacks wasn’t an issue.  And even if they had some exorbitant charge to check a bag, I would only have a small carry-on, so it wouldn’t affect me.  And the price differential between it and United or Delta was $80.  I booked the flight.  There was a note that “baggage fees are not billed at time of purchase” but this wouldn’t affect me, as I wouldn’t be checking any bags.

My flight was scheduled to depart at 9:50pm.  That morning, I went online to the Spirit site to check-in and print out my boarding pass.  That’s when I first learned that in addition to charging for checked baggage, Spirit charges for your one carry-on bag.   And because I was doing this less than twenty-four hours before my flight, the $35 fee would be $40.  Of course, one can’t check-in and print a boarding pass more than twenty-four hours in advance, and since there’d been no notification of this charge when I booked the flight, there was no reason for me to have thought to go to Spirit’s site sooner to pay for my carry-on.  Gotcha!  And, as it was subsequently explained to me in broken English by an out-sourced customer relations person, all fees are based on the outbound trip… so even though I was now also paying for my return carry-on bag (six days in advance of that flight), I would be charged the $40 rate for that flight as well.  Gotcha!  Next, I was offered the opportunity to pay $10, $14, $18 or $25 each way to choose a seat (the prices range of prices reflecting where on the plane the seat was located), or I could opt to be randomly assigned a seat for free.   Unwilling to be extorted further, I opted not to pay the bribe, and was not surprised when I was “randomly assigned” a center seat in the rear of the plane.  I typed in my credit card information for the $80 carry-on fee and was rewarded with a printable boarding pass.

Looking over the pass, I noticed that next to “baggage” it said “0” and that nowhere was their mention of me having just shelled out $80 bucks to have a carry-on, nor was I sent any kind of receipt.  This only concerned me because the site had made it clear that if I waited till I got to the airport to pay for my bag, the fee would be $100 each way.  I phoned customer service.  After being on hold for an hour and seven minutes, the aforementioned young man informed me that I did not need to fear, that though it was not on my boarding pass, it was in his system that I had paid and that his system was the same one they have at the airport.  He also informed me that it was good that I had printed my boarding pass at home, because if I did it at the Spirit kiosk at the airport, I would be charged $10.  And if I needed to have one of their check-in personnel assist me, it would be an additional $10.  Gotcha! Gotcha!

Out of curiosity, I googled Spirit Airlines and found that it is consistently ranked worst in terms of customer satisfaction – which in the airline industry is saying something!  The complaints were almost exclusively about all the hidden and unexpected additional charges.  “Greyhound of the Skies” was oft repeated.  And the phrase “never again” was used almost as much as at a Holocaust conference.

At the airport as I sat at the gate while the flight was delayed an hour and a quarter (our plane was late arriving from Chicago… fascinating that they didn’t know this until our official boarding time had come and gone!) I couldn’t help but marvel at the large signs advertising that Spirit was committed to having the lowest fares possible… “We don’t want to charge you an extra $100, so please pay for your carry-on bags before arriving at the airport!”  Of course, by the time one was looking at these posters, it was too late.  And, of course, if they really didn’t want to charge us an extra $100, then they didn’t have to.  Nor did they have to charge the extra $5 for paying for a carry-on bag less than twenty-four hours in advance or $10 for using their kiosk to print out your boarding pass.

Worse than the fees (which quickly make flying Spirit as expensive, if not more, than flying any other airline), is the disingenuousness of it all.  “We’re committed to having the lowest fares possible…”  No, they’re not.  They’re committed to suckering people in and then making up the advertised price differential (and then some) with additional fees.  Charging for food or checked bags has become the norm.  But Spirit, by not advertising that they charge for services that industry standard has led us to expect to be free (or at least not stating it prominently and timely), they are acting like con artists.

Spirit also makes a big show of listing “the government’s cut” next to the price… perhaps pandering to the Tea Party as they blame taxes for the high cost of air travel.  But the tax doesn’t even come close to the dollar amount that should be listed as “Spirit’s extortion.”

On board the plane, which was colder than any plane I’ve ever been on, a woman seated near me asked the flight attendant if they had a blanket.  The smiling Spirit employee’s response, “Yes, but I have to charge you for it,” reminded me of post I read on that website of complaints about Spirit… “Next they’ll start serving free beer, but charge for using the lavatory.”  Well, they don’t serve free beer.  They don’t even serve free water.  One must purchase a bottle.  Though I did hear a flight attendant explain to a passenger that if it was a medical emergency she could give him a tiny cup of water to take a pill.

Finally, at the end of the flight, which to be fair was smooth and free of any incidents, the head flight attendant spoke to us over the p.a. system, “Spirit is committed to keeping our fares the lowest possible, so please take a few moments to clean up around you, remove any magazines or newspapers or wrappers, so our cleaning crew doesn’t need to spend time before the plane’s next trip.”  Perhaps Spirit could take a page from Tom Sawyer and add, “for an additional charge of $50, we’ll let you vacuum the aisle and clean the lavatory.”

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