Excellent Interview with Spirit Airlines Marketing Chief

Cranky Flier has a two part interview with Spirit Airlines’ marketing chief Barry Biffle.

I remember Barry as a good guy, I had drinks with him and some other frequent flyers in Crystal City years ago after he participating in an online chat with Randy Petersen back when he was at US Airways.

He came over to Spirit with Ben Baldanza, I certainly have nothing against Barry though I’ve long held a grudge against Baldanza for his comments in USA Today that frequent customers who were buying the lowest fares that US Airways offered weren’t the kind of customers that they wanted. US Airways led the pack in the day with a plan to only award elite qualifying miles on full fare tickets, though the effort was aborted amidst much backlash and when the rest of the industry didn’t go along with the changes.

Baldanza continued developing his customer-unfriendly reputation with an email where he hit reply-all, insulting a customer and belittling their complaints, when he meant to send it internally. His view was that people make their decision based on price and the service they get mattered much less.

It’s interesting to see the transition from Baldanza looking for premium fare passengers to catering towards the low fare crowd, though in both cases his attitude and mental model appeared to be highly dismissive of the customer.

I’m long on record believing that Spirit Airlines is a carrier I would never want to fly, and one that I wouldn’t recommend flying. Though at the same time I strongly support their right to offer their product as they see fit. Their business model is a cheap, stripped-down flight experience with everything ‘extra’ being extra. I do think that some of their practices are shady, such as Cranky observes their ‘opt out’ for travel insurance rather than opt-in and their booking fees which can be avoided at the airport. This is the airline that used to charge a web ‘convenience fee’ for online booking. Still, despite the fees they can sometimes be the cheapest option and they certainly add low fare pressure to markets where major carrier routes overlap meaning that I Can often buy cheaper tickets on other airlines because of Spirit’s presence and I appreciate that. I wouldn’t want to fly them during irregular operations especially, and I find the overall package of benefits offered by major airlines with better frequent flyer programs and elite benefits more to my liking.

But it’s still exceptionally silly for members of Congress to crusade against things like Spirit’s carry-on baggage fee for items that don’t’ fit under the seat. It’s easy to grandstand in front of the cameras but as long as Spirit does disclose all of their fees and the value proposition on offer they ought to be able to innovate and offer a product which is differentiated from other carriers.

Making this sort of case, I think Biffle comes off exceptionally well in the interview. Perhaps it helps that Cranky Flier seems sympathetic to him, but assuming the interview is reported straight-up I think that Biffle himself makes an excellent case. I wish he’d put himself forward more broadly and articulate Spirit’s right to operate, articulate exactly what the value proposition is, so that no one is surprised and can make informed decisions. Spirit has long appeared to be of the belief that any media is good media, so the more free media he gets with his interviews the better.

In addition to defending Spirit’s business model, I think Biffle makes an important yet subtle point that’s often missed. Airline ticket sales are heavily regulated. There are massive disclosure requirements, both in the ticketing process and also in their advertising. And with all of the mandated information, that an airline can be fined for foregoing, there’s a bit of information overload with consumers. Spirit doesn’t really hide their practices. I agree with that. But many consumers still miss the important points and come off feeling misled because they’re used to major carrier behavior and Spirit is different. There’s so much information that an airline must throw out there, that nobody reads it and nobody understands it. Adding more disclosures just adds to information overload. Regulations undergirded by “more information is better” and a meme of transparency can actually be harmful to consumers overall.

I’m not sure what we do with this observation exactly, I don’t know the right level of disclosure or how to best communicate with customers, though I suppose it makes me skeptical of calls for greater disclosures. A simpler approach where airlines are required to be truthful, or at least not lie, to their customers might be in order and then let those airlines innovate in how they communicate, with plenty of media and blog criticisms of those which do it badly. To some that will fall short, but over-disclosure seems to as well.

Ultimately I’m just glad that Spirit has a right to offer their product, even if I don’t want to fly them.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good stuff. So where does one meet an airline exec for drinks in Crystal City. Crystal City Sports Pub? Kabob Palace? Somewhere deep deep underground?

  2. @DL, there is also that rotating bar in the sky at the Doubletree. Not a bad place to see the sights and watch the planes come in, even if the view changes slowly.

  3. Interesting read. Personally I’m super happy that Spirit Exists.
    Based in the Ft. Lauderdale area myself, they are my easy go to airline for quick weekends away.
    On any given weekend, I can get somewhere for under $100.

    I don’t care about legroom, bathrooms, luggage limits, counter service….just give me a low fare and a safe plane and i’m in!

  4. “This is the airline that used to charge a web ‘convenience fee’ for online booking.”

    They still do, don’t they? If not, what is that $8 usage fee they tag onto the booking?

  5. What all the carriers need is to allow fares and disclosures to be deregulated. This would allow low cost airlines to further lower fares, and educate customers as to how to take responsibility for their own well being. Further, as these carriers usually cater to low income flyers and those who do not place much value on wellbeing while traveling why aren” safety proceedures more deregulated? Most airports are surrounded by low income areas anyways, at least the ones serviced by low cost carriers. Most low cost carriers pass are poor anyways and so their legal liability should not be so crushing in case of a crash. Finally, like Ryan Air they should be allow to restrict disabled pass to only 4 a flight and force pass with “special needs” to have to call a 900 number so as to keep fares down for the rest of those who are more flexable and trouble free customers. Only with more freedom will fares be able to fall lower and stay that way.

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