Spirit Airlines has melted down over the past couple of weeks at a level we’ve rarely ever seen from an airline. Stories about Spirit’s cancellations, about the airline telling its employees to leave the airport in disguise for their own personal protection, and of passenger revolts have gotten wrapped up with coverage of other airline delays. They aren’t comparable. On some days Spirit has cancelled over half of its flights.
They seem to have finally gotten things under control after crew shortages, angry employees, IT debacles and bad weather largely grounded the carrier. So it makes sense to think about the long-term damage not just for how those passengers directly affected think about Spirit, but how video of passengers losing it in the face of impossible lines to eventually not get help reverberate in the minds of potential customers who might fly the airline in the future. The answer, of course, is that Spirit will be fine.
It’s tougher to recover from bad Spirit operations
- Spirit doesn’t have many flights or multiple hubs to route passengers through, their flights tend to be infrequent (eg one per day per city pair) and point-to-point, so no hub connections to get people on their way.
- Spirit doesn’t have interline agreements to send passengers to another airline, but then again Southwest doesn’t either (but see #1) and it isn’t easy for most flyers to get sent over to another airline during irregular operations these days anyway (because it’s an expense for the airline).
Spirit Airlines has an almost exclusively leisure base of customers. Most of them are highly infrequent travelers. That’s worse during irregular operations because they’re customers who don’t know how to manage problems themselves and need more help (that Spirit isn’t able to offer) but it’s better from a reputation recovery standpoint.
- Passengers disservice by Spirit aren’t as likely to be making repeat purchase decisions soon
- Their customer base probably isn’t paying attention to this
- Their customers disproportionately make their decisions based on price anyway, accepting less service (onboard, and schedule frequency) already – so they’re the customers most willing to accept bad service and still buy Spirit tickets.
For a frequent traveler on legacies carriers, flying Spirit is interesting sociological fieldwork. I remain struck by their inflight beverage card, encouraging passengers to buy alcoholic beverages: “Why not? You’re on vacation!”
In the end, United Airlines recovered from the PR hit that followed passenger David Dao being dragged off of one of their flights and being beaten, and the carrier’s CEO apologizing for this incident inconvenience other passengers. Spirit is better positioned with its customer base than United was to move forward.
The Spirit Airlines Big Front Seat remains one of the best deals in travel, and prior to the pandemic the airline had gotten a handle on its operations. But if a Spirit flight goes wrong, don’t depend on the airline to get you where you’re going. Take matters into your own hands. Figure you’ll fight for your refund later, and get your own travel on another airline stat.