This month, for the first time, Spirit’s operational performance is included in the Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report. The results aren’t as bad as you might expect, but they certainly aren’t great. Spirit, however, celebrates the good news while giving a reason for the bad news. Some of the reasons, I believe. Others? Not so much.
Here’s a 3 minute video on why Spirit thinks you should be happy about all this. (I warn you, it’s painful to watch.)
I give Spirit credit for being very clear in talking about this. But of course, there’s some spin here. Let’s look at the numbers.
Spirit ran on time 71.9 percent of the time versus an industry average of 76.8 percent in January. It tied JetBlue, which is much more affected by awful New York weather and beat only Frontier and American’s regional Envoy. That’s bad. But Spirit disagrees and argues that this is actually a good thing. Stick with me.
The reason Spirit says it runs a more delay-prone airline is two-fold. One, it’s an ultra low cost carrier so it’s running its airplanes hard. When something breaks or the weather is bad, that’s going to cause a lot of problems. But two, the airline prefers not to cancel flights. The numbers show that to be true. In January, Spirit completed 98.9 percent of its flights, tied with Delta. Only perennial rock stars Alaska and Hawaiian did better.
If Spirit either wanted to invest in more spares or cancel more flights, it could run on time more often. But that doesn’t fit the model. For now, Spirit says that not canceling flights is better for people. That’s probably true. Spirit doesn’t run a ton of flights in most markets and has a very high load factor. It also won’t put you on another airline except in rare cases. So if you’re canceled by Spirit, you’re in a heap of trouble, way worse than being delayed. The only problem is that as the airline grows and gets more complex, it may eventually melt down. Remember JetBlue in 2007? Sometimes you just need to cancel.
What about the other stats? Well, Spirit did very well with lost bags. It had 2.35 reports per 1,000 passengers, good enough to be in third place behind Virgin America and JetBlue. I’d say that high bag fees might mean fewer people are actually checking bags on Spirit. But carry-on fees are higher, so you’d actually think more people would check bags than on the traditional legacy carriers. This is an unqualified good job.
Then there are consumer complaints. Oh yeah, that didn’t go well. Spirit had 7.99 complaints per 100,000 passengers. It likes to crow that it wasn’t in last place – that goes to Frontier with 8.61 – but it’s still dreadful. Spirit says it wants to eliminate complaints, but to me, this is where the story falls apart.
First of all, Spirit says that if only 7.99 out of 100,000 passengers are complaining, that means 99.99 percent of people are happy. That’s just not true. After all, people don’t usually go straight to the DOT to file a complaint. They only go there if they can’t get any satisfaction from the airline, and they are so angry that they bother to follow through with the government. The people who complain to the DOT are the tip of the iceberg for any airline. Spirit is no different. There are a ton more people who aren’t happy than this report lets on.
Also, Spirit says that it’s actively trying to reduce complaints by educating people about the airline’s business model. It says that complaints about the business model make up 35 percent of the total complaints. If that’s true, that means that there are still over 5 complaints per 100,000 passengers based on other stuff, including a big chunk from flight problems. That’s less than 7.99 but it’s still way worse than any other airline (save Frontier). So there’s clearly something more than just the business model causing problems.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Spirit for talking about this in a very public manner, and I don’t think the numbers are all that bad (except for complaints) considering what the airline is trying to do. But the spin is just a little too thick for me. What do you think?