3 Myths about Spirit Airlines; or My Flight on Spirit Was Perfectly Fine, Really

Yes, I survived.

Judging by the comments in this popular post, you would think that I would emerge from my Spirit Airlines flight on Sunday morning sweaty, bloodied and experiencing what would be the first symptoms of a lifetime struggle with Post Traumatic Spirit Disorder (PTSD).

But I survived. I survived and disembarked thinking that, apparently, every single person who has whined about Spirit must be insane. Or cranky. Or perhaps there’s something else going on…

My one-way ticket from Detroit to LaGuardia cost $63. That ticket, which was roughly $300 less than the one-way fare being charged by Delta, American and United (and the same price as a taxi ride from my apartment in Manhattan to Newark Airport), entitled me to exactly 1 seat on the plane and nothing else.

After we landed I turned to my friend with whom I was traveling and said, “I don’t get it – what the hell are people complaining about?”

I think part of the issue stems from some misconceptions.

Allow me to debunk 3 myths about Spirit Airlines:

Myth 1: Spirit Has An Unreasonable (and Possibly Unfair) Number of Ancillary Charges

It is true that Spirit generates a significant amount of its revenue from non-ticket sources. But that does not make those charges unfair or unreasonable. I will take Spirit at their word when they say that unbundling fees from the base price of the ticket (ie, the ticket includes only the right for you to sit on the aircraft, and includes nothing else), it actually saves customers money (on average) because it allows passengers to choose the services they want. In other words, while the soda on my United flight today is free, it’s actually “free” – it’s bundled into the price of my ticket and if I did not drink a soda during my journey, I have paid for a soda that I did not drink. THAT doesn’t sound fair.

When Spirit moved to this unbundled model it seemed unusual when compared with the ticket buying experience on so-called full service airlines. But that ship has sailed (as they say) – most airlines now charge for baggage, seat assignments, food, etc. The difference is that Spirit isn’t kidding us by pretending to be a full-service experience while offering little-to-no-service.

But Jared, you may be thinking, what about that ridiculous carry-on bag fee? Good question, you. Answer: I can’t defend it. I can tell you this: it speeds up the boarding process; it forced me to pack next-to-nothing in my free-to-carry-on backpack; and in your head you should just add $25 each way to the price of the ticket to come to the actual price so you aren’t angry about it being a fee. See, now it’s part of the ticket. Or jam everything in your backpack. Your call.

Myth 2: The Spirit On-Board Experience Is Terrible

I flew Spirit on a quite new A320, a plane that is probably 25 years younger than the United 767 on which I am currently sitting 6 miles above Ohio. The fine cabin staff have turned on the on-board movie, which is being projected onto a screen at the front of my section, 1978-style. The folks sitting in coach, should they wish to eat, can purchase from United’s pretty limited buy-on-board menu. Non-elite coach flyers did not (at least on my flight) have the option of purchasing additional legroom in the exit row, because those seats were snagged by elite frequent flyers.

Spirit offered no in-flight movie, which was fine with me as I brought my iPad. Other airlines are also re-considering their investments in seatback entertainment since so many people now bring their own media on board. They sold food on board, including an array of snacks. They do charge for soda and water. Get over it.

I paid (gladly) $25 for an exit row seat, which got me about 38” pitch. They offer an option called “Big Front Seat” which is essentially the same as the domestic first class seats on most airlines. While this seat can be a $1,000 additional cost on a legacy airline, Spirit will sell it to you for $50-$60. OK, it doesn’t come with any food, so perhaps you’re only paying $992 less.

Myth 3: Spirit’s Seat Pitch (Legroom) Is Inhumane

Pitch on the A320 is 28”. Yes, 28”. They manage that by using a new thin “pre-reclined” seat. “Pre-reclined” seat – which means it doesn’t recline – sounds like a giant pile of B.S. But I’m serious when I say that while it’s not exactly like sitting on JetBlue, it’s not as bad as you would fear. Really.

I can tell you that the back of the seat in front of you is, in fact, right in front of your nose. You are very, very close to the seat in front of you. Imagine what I’m talking about, then imagine it even closer. You will be able to determine the shampoo used by the person in the row ahead of you. However, the back of the seat slopes forward (the tray table is at an angle) so that you actually have more legroom than the nose-to-seat distance would suggest. For flights under, say, 2 ½ -3 hours it’s not a big deal at all.

Would I want to sit in that seat on a 5-hour red eye? Dear God, no. That $25 exit row will look pretty juicy from your non-exit-row seat. But they give you that option, and that is my point: If legroom matters to you, you can buy it. If food matters, then you can buy it. If not, you and your backpack can enjoy your $63 ticket to Detroit.

I actually think the fine folks at Spirit Airlines would be viewed as heroes (like the team at Southwest) if their management team hadn’t (excuse my language) shat on their customers in such a vocal and public manner. Even if they didn’t embrace a culture like that at Southwest, they could have at least chosen a neutral stance like that taken by Allegiant, which has basically the same policies and in-flight experience as Spirit, but isn’t held in such disdain.

They didn’t choose that route, and instead of being hailed as the airline that allows you to fly to Florida in a business class seat on a brand new plane for about $109, they are thought of as the airline that’s going to screw you out of $3 for a water. That’s a shame. Freddy Laker is remembered as the person who finally opened up an affordable way to fly to London, not as the guy who charged you for things other airlines gave away.

I don’t think it’s too late to change this perception. They are clever (if slightly smarmy) marketers over there. If I were them, I would make 2013 the year of Social Media and, as JetBlue and Virgin America have done, use Twitter to build a rapport with customers and let them know there’s a place they can go if they have a problem or question (or as they might put it, the Spirit Twitter Desk – We’ve Got STDs!)

The airline’s financials are fantastic – their model works. And I know management’s defense is that the number speak for themselves. That’s true, but as they add more domestic routes with competition (rather than growing their Caribbean network with its leisure and Visiting Friends & Relatives (VFR) traffic), people will be able to choose not to fly them.

Spirit is at an inflection point in their history with this change to domestic traffic, it seems crazy that they wouldn’t take this opportunity to fix how customers (and potential customers) think of them.

(Disclosure: I own a very small number of shares of Spirit’s stock).


  1. Jimmy @TravelByPoints

    We’ve never flown Spirit, but recently flew Allegiant for the first time on a round trip between Las Vegas and Monterey, CA. Aside from the delay in LAS, the experience was fine – very similar to your analysis/experience. I’d fly Allegiant or Spirit as long as the price is right.

    The big boys used to match or beat low fares of those airlines, but less and less so nowadays, probably due to the negative publicity. I, too, hope that their images get a makeover, so that they will be considered serious threat/competition again.

  2. Ive heard lots of bad things about Spirit but may have to give them a chance one of these days. My logic would be to find the cheapest ticket on an alternative airline and subtract the standard Spirit ticket price. That allows me a window to “spend on upgrades” until I’m close to the alternative airline’s price. That mindset would make me feel better about flying with Spirit.

  3. My understanding on the problems with spirit (other than the seat pitch) is mainly related to missed connections. If you connect with them and they F it up, you can be in trouble. They are probably fine for one leg hops.

    • @John – While it’s true that they have very low frequencies (making missed connections a serious problem), CrankyFlier just wrote about this issue: Spirit has decided to take a hit in on-time performance in exchange for ensuring that people make their connections. In other words, they’ll hold (delay) connecting flights from taking off to ensure that everyone who is supposed to connect to it is able to get on.

  4. Well, I consider myself a “Spirit defender,” but I’m still very unsure about the future of this airline. If they’re going to thrive in the future, I think they need a change in philosophy — much like you suggest.

    Everytime I buy and fly Spirit (which, frankly, is as infrequently as I can) I feel like it’s a game to trick me into spending more money than I’m expecting to. Admittedly, I’m a very experienced flyer, so the tricks don’t work, but I still don’t appreciate them. And I suspect no one else does, either. Have you seen any “customer satisfaction” ratings for Spirit? I assume their customers generally hate them. Has anyone ever built a long-term successful business on customer dissatisfaction?

    Since I don’t book connecting tickets on Spirit, the primary reason I avoid them as much as possible is the seating game. Maybe I’m old fashioned (or maybe just cheap) but I don’t pay extra for “premium” coach seats. Instead, I try to use my “travel savvy” to get a decent seat without additional expense. I have found this is possible to do with Spirit if you wait until boarding time and are nice to the gate agent. Otherwise, you’re probably going to get a crummy seat — likely a middle seat in the back if you’re a solo traveller. And the pitch between seats sucks. As you’ve observed, there’s more legroom on their newer “pre-reclined” seats. Woe be a traveller on one of their old aircraft when the person in front of you puts their seat back!

  5. Thank you for a very detailed trip report of your experience. I’ve been thinking about taking Spirit just because they are so cheap to get away for a quick weekend.

  6. Spirit has the worst on-time record of any airline ever in the US, less than 68%. No other airlines even gets below 90%. Sure people looking to save a few bucks might put up with being treated like caged animals with no room to even breathe but the main thing people complain about is cancelled or egregiously delayed flights. Then to top it off most get nothing back except a refund when their flight is cancelled. Getting back your cheap $150 fare when you’re stuck in another city in the middle of the night does you no good.

    In the end you will pay several hundred more flying Spirit because of those cancelled flights. There is a good reason it is the only US carrier to be ranked amongst the 20 worst airlines in the entire WORLD. The rest of the airlines on the list are small carriers you never heard of in 3rd world countries. So Spirit ranks among the worst airlines from the poorest countries in the world.

  7. Hello Jared. Thanks for your post. Lots of useful information. I do have one question. You mentioned that you did not mind the fact that there is not an inflight movie because you would use your IPad. I had the same idea myself, but when I went to their website it said that WIFI was not available on any Spirit flight. How were you able to use your IPad?