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Nancy Smith

Spirit Airlines, the Scum of the Skies: Just Ask Spirit Passengers

November 15, 2011 - 6:00pm

Even with the greedy insurance industry and the robber financial institutions and the lineup of fat Fortune 500 pharmaceutical giants, Spirit Airlines still makes my list of Top 10 Suckiest Companies in America.

The Miramar-based "discount carrier" signed a $6.7 billion agreement Tuesday to buy 45 A320neo planes and 30 A320 aircraft from Airbus. And all of a sudden it came flooding back just how bad these guys are, never mind that they're a Florida company.

That's right, Airbus is a German planemaker.

What, was Boeing, here in the good old U.S.A., so busy Spirit had to take its business to Europe?

And Spirit Chief Executive Officer Ben Baldanza announced the deal not in Florida, but at the Dubai Air Show, halfway around the world.

In case you're wondering how a carrier like Spirit -- offering delicious one-way fares as low as $9 -- can get any kind of return on a $6.7 billion investment, please, let me fill you in.

They do it because, come to find out, they aren't a no-frills carrier after all.

These are well and truly frills-'r'-us folks. They're like the infomercial pirates on TV who hawk a set of steak knives for $19.95, with a second set plus carving knife for free, just call this number now -- but by the time you hang up the phone, you've shelled out nearly $100 in postage and handling.

With Spirit, once you get past the cheap tickets, you're going to pony up luxury-style for a jaw-dropping array of goods and services, everything except your oxygen mask and a trip down the aisle to the lavatory.

Here's what you'll be paying for as a passenger on Spirit:

  • Optional annual membership of $59.95 in the airline's $9 Fare Club, if you want access to the cheapest fares.
  • Would you like an assigned seat? Figure to part with $8 to $20 (even if you want to reserve a middle seat).
  • Want to put that carry-on in an overhead bin? That'll be $45 one-way.
  • How about a glass of water? Yes, water. It's $3 a pop -- a dollar more than a cup of coffee.
  • On Nov. 8, your domestic "passenger usage fee" will increase from $8.99 each way to $16.99.
  • In January, look to fork over $5 for each boarding pass a ticket agent prints.

Oh, yes, and this just in -- announced Tuesday, same day as the Airbus deal: Passengers on Spirit Airlines Inc. will pay nearly $34 in fees to buy their tickets online. To avoid this one, they'll have to do their buying at the airport ticket counter, well in advance of the flight, to make sure the plane won't be full.

"It's one of the sneakiest fees in the industry," says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog. He notes that Spirit lists the generic-sounding "passenger usage fee" (mentioned above) along with the government-imposed taxes and fees. "It's very disingenuous. It does look like some unavoidable fee."

Spirit has all kinds of former passengers out there, blogging and tweeting their unhappiness. Check out, for example, the Spirit Airlines Sucks twitter list.

If you think the low fares still make a Spirit flight a good deal, despite the a la carte menu of service charges, talk to Anne Banas, executive editor of the website SmarterTravel. She told ABC News last year that the fees quickly erode Spirit's claims of having the lowest fares.

"The reality, aside from those few passengers who are willing to pack exceptionally light, is that Spirit's fares are often not that great when you add everything up," Banas said. "Plus, you have to read the fine print in the advertising. For example, some of Spirit's cheapest advertised fares don't include the cost of fuel, which can add on anywhere between about $11 and $76, depending on mileage flown."

SmarterTravel compared prices for flights from Boston to Cancun with one checked bag and one carry-on. Spirit had the lowest advertised fare, but the fees quickly added up. In the end, Spirit was $435.17, JetBlue $426.10 and Delta $309.10.

Let's not forget legroom. If you like shoehorning your size 12 foot into a size 10 Oxford, you'll find Spirit plenty roomy.

Better yet, compare JetBlue, which offers 34 to 38 inches of legroom to Spirit's 28 inches. Now you see how Spirit plans to pay $6.7 billion for that new Airbus order. Wedging passengers in like sardines in a tin can gives Spirit 178 seats on its planes, 28 more than JetBlue.

Actually, passengers who think they have no legroom traveling Spirit now, wait till they tuck themselves into a seat in one of the carrier's new Airbuses. The A320neo, due out in 2015, offers new engine options and other features designed to cut noise and use 15 percent less fuel than older models Airbus models. But the body of an A320neo is exceptionally narrow, and the seats won't recline at all.

Can you blame Gary Leff, who runs the popular frequent flier blog View From the Wing for saying of Spirit, "This is the airline that's famous for hating their customers"?

Easily one of the suckiest consumer nightmares in America.

This is an opinion column: Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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