The Super Weird Reason Spirit Airlines Offers A First Class Seating Option

Spirit Airlines is an “ultra low cost carrier” with fees line extra charges for checking in (at the airport) and for bags (that you carry on yourself) often costing more than the fare itself. They’re the butt of late night comedy routines, but they also make air travel far more affordable – not just for those who fly them, but on routes and at times when legacy airlines have to compete with them.

So it’s weird that they offer a product that’s like domestic first class that you’ll find on American, Delta, United and Alaska Airlines. Except it’s not exactly like it. Spirit calls theirs “the Big Front Seat.” That’s because you’re still getting the rest of the Spirit experience, the only major difference is you’re sitting in ‘the big seat at the front of the plane’. Your seat still doesn’t recline, and you still have to pay for drinks.

For years prior to the pandemic Spirit’s Big Front Seat was one of the best deals in travel. For instance I flew Chicago – Austin in the Big Front Seat for $118 which was about half the cost of a regular coach seat on United or American at the time.

Spirit Airlines Big Front Seat

It’s not a separate cabin. It’s a seat assignment fee. And they frequently charge more for it than they used to. The Big Front Seat is profitable for Spirit since it’s earning more than their other seats on a per square foot basis on the plane. But I didn’t realize how they decided to offer the product in the first place.

Brian Sumers, in his subscription substack Airline Observer, relays comments from Barry Biffle at the J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference this month. I first met Biffle when he was a marketing executive at US Airways (before it was taken over by America West), at a happy hour in Crystal City near National Airport tow decades ago. He want from working for Ben Baldanza at US Airways to Baldanza’s Chief Marketing Officer at Spirit and is now CEO at Frontier.

Biffle offers that when he was at Spirit they decided to keep the premium cabin seats the airline already had because it was too expensive to replace the seats.

Biffle reminded analysts he created the Big Front Seat when he was an executive at Spirit. “We were converting the airline from basically a legacy-type product,” he said. “Spirit Airlines had what they called a business class. We literally were so broke that we didn’t have the $3 million that it would take to actually get rid of it.” They decided to sell the seat without service.

…Spirit never has disclosed its load factor for its Big Front Seats, but CEO Ted Christie said nearly everyone who sits there paid for it.

Big Front Seat Legroom

Frontier offers its own premium seating product, extra legroom ‘Stretch’ seats, and “Biffle said he is still not sure which is a better use of real estate, but for now, Frontier will stick with what it has.” Frontier of course lacks inflight internet, which is why I consider flying Spirit but not Frontier.

On the one hand it seems super weird to me that an airline would choose its product because it’s cheapest to offer, rather than because they believe it will maximize revenue. On the other hand that may be the most Spirit Airlines thing ever, and so is stumbling into another product that they can successfully sell to passengers for an extra fee. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising then that Biffle, now running Frontier, chooses to ‘just keep the seats he has’ even though he doesn’t know it’s the revenue-maximizing move.

When in doubt their approach is ‘not to spend money’ rather than to ‘spend money’.

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, 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. Lol, sometimes the smartest guys in the room are the ones who admit, at least to themselves, fuck if I know, let’s go with cheapest option/status quo and get more information to make a decision later.

    Punting is acceptable in sports but weirdly is seen as a moral failing in many other aspects of this life.

  2. Does anyone know if elites on Spirit can upgrade to the Big Front Seat? Last year, I status matched to Frontier and got the stretch seats for free (including emergency exit row) which made buying Frontier’s astonishingly cheap seats (almost always under $50) a good deal. I see that Spirit offers a status match, too, but for a shorter period of time. Might still be worth it to me if I could fly relatively comfortably in their large seats with more legroom.

  3. I guess I’m weird but I assumed that was the reason the very first time I heard about it.

  4. I can say pre-covid I used to regularly get free BFS assignments just by knowing how the algorithm worked. They would clear into BFS for free at check in once most other seats were filled (but before they cleared into exit rows). For weight and balance reasons. So I consistently got BFS for free. That changed when they brought on PlusUpgrade to manage bidding on these seats. That said I recently bid $19 and got the last BFS mco-slc. So great deals are still there to be had

  5. The other reason to avoid Frontier is that they got rid of telephone customer support. If something goes sideways, you’re stuck with whatever help you can get at the airport or by using text chat. IRROPS happen – I’m not confident that text chat is a full substitute for being able to talk to an actual person.

  6. @chopsticks: Spirit Gold gets to select exit row seatings at the time of booking for free. However, I’ve never been upgraded to Big Front Seat. When I do fly up front I pay the upcharge like all others.

  7. Thanks, JP. Obviously exit row is not quite as good as Big Front Seat, but I usually fly with my wife. On Frontier, we’d book window-aisle, and the middle seat would stay free as long as the plane wasn’t sold out (the fee for that seat was huge, so nobody would pay it, and it can’t be randomly assigned online). I assume the same would happen on Spirit.

  8. I was on a nonstop flight from LGA-DTW. No other seats were available 3 hours before the flight so I was not assigned a seat at check in–see gate agent. I was booked into BIG FRONT SEAT for free since no other seats were available. It is possible to be upgraded if no one books it.

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