Spirit Explains Its First DOT Report Card, But Do You Agree With The Rationale?


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?

20 comments on “Spirit Explains Its First DOT Report Card, But Do You Agree With The Rationale?

  1. I had a bad customer service experience with Spirit once. But ultimately, you get what you pay for. People expecting the Ritz Carleton at a budget motel will never be happy. And the motel isn’t going to bend over backwards to make things right.

    I have such respect for Spirit. They have a model and follow it closely in everything they do. It is consistent and generally transparent. This is no different – they are explaining the results, even in their wacky Spirit way. Spirit may not be for me, as I will gladly pay more for convenience, on time percent, etc. But for people who are budget focused, it is nice to see a company that is transparent and not predatory. Explaining results is a good step, even if it is biased. They gave a perspective and truly tried to educate people in their response (i.e. why no more spare aircraft). Kudos.

    Can you imagine other carriers giving responses? :)
    Delta: press release: “Delta wins again. We are enhancing customer experience by being better than last. In the future, we will hide results to better serve you and answer your needs. Keep Climbing”
    United response “Today’s results are an enhancement since we have nowhere to go but up”
    Southwest TV commercial: “BAGS FLY FREE (that is all we are allowed to say)”
    AA: “We will create revenue synergies by improving our on time performance. Customers can continue to get US Airways customer service with American marketing and arrogance”
    VX internet popup: “We exist too, ya know. Just remember JetBlue 2007. That wasn’t us”
    JetBlue blog post: “Another year another IROP. This time we are serious about making changes to our winter planning, even if it costs us more money. Oh wait, nevermind on that part. But free blue chips for everyone!”

  2. The spin is the usual fertilizer you get from Spirit, but I think that’s the whole point. NK has been brutally honest from the beginning about who they are – we’re cheap, and because you are, too, you’ll keep flying us no matter how crappy our customer service is, so we don’t really care. It would be nice if Baldanza would lay off the corporate doublespeak a little, but honestly, even the spin is pretty transparent.

    I think, though, that this illustrates the limitations of the ULCC model in the U.S., going back to your post from earlier in the week. Cheapskates will put up with poor service and irregular/unreliable schedules to save $20, but business travelers largely won’t. Ramp up the frequency and connections to cater to business fliers, though, and there’s a high risk of a meltdown a la jetBlue in 2007. Spirit managed to make it through the winter weather nightmares at DFW at the end of February/beginning of March since they only run 26 flights a day, and could just delay here and there to compensate. Can you imagine how bad it would have been if they even had a schedule comparable to Southwest at DAL?

      1. Agreed. For $20, I am going to go for the more comfortable experience. But there comes a point that I can put up with an hour of discomfort to save some money. I only have so much money to spend on a vacation, and saving money on a flight lets me stretch it farther. Now on a business trip, I expect more…

  3. Cranky I don’t know if you have done this topic already but delta completion factor seems way to high does this number not include any of the regionals they cancel?

    1. Olamide – That’s correct. It doesn’t include regionals. But even with regionals Delta does better than most. They’ve made a huge commitment to operational quality over there.

  4. I think the complaint rate is expected, but I love that NK is just being honest with passengers. Everybody wants the cheapest fare and then complains when it doesn’t come with a meal, IFE, 3 oversized bags, and pretty young women waiting on you hand and foot. It’s a tail as old as time. The legacies spend a lot of time and money saying they’re trying to improve and NK just says “stuff it–you paid $79 to be flung from coast to coast. #BYE”. Love it.

  5. You have to give credit to Spirit, they are the 99 cent store of airlines, but they don’t try an act like Neiman Marcus. There is a reason stores like Walmart and the Dollar stores do so well is because there are a lot of people who ‘need’ to shop there. The same goes for the Spirit/Allegiant of the airline world, there are a lot of people who ‘need’ to fly them due pricing and while they may not like it, will still travel on them.

    Their motto should be: ‘Hey we’re crap and we’ll let you know that up front, so don’t complain’

    And like was said before, you get what you pay for. A Yugo wasn’t a Benz but it got you from place to place still the same.

  6. Their mishandled bag rate ought to be even better than it is! As far as I know, they don’t do interline transfers (transfer bags to other airlines)… and historically that category alone makes up for 30-40% of mishandled bags. I take the DOT stats with a grain of salt (as I do all the “rankings”) but it seems Spirit’s performance is mediocre at best, overall.

    1. Mediocre is good enough for Spirit’s business model. As long as flight delays and lost bags aren’t significantly worse than the other guys, you have no reason to exclude Spirit from your travel choices.

      Spirit is fine with people choosing to pay more to get more, but I am certain that they will fight hard to keep their stats inline with the rest of the industry.

  7. “We may be rotten, but we’re cheap!” Give ’em credit!

    Timely matter. I’m currently on my 2015 letter of complaint to DOT (re: UA’s marketing and/or operating flights where disclosure in flight listings about the need to change planes is omitted, hinted at but not said, awfully ambiguous, deceptive, or shown in a manner that a reasonable person would conclude constitues fraud: version 2015.1).

    I’ve brought this to DOT’s, UA’s, and OAG’s attention in great detail year after year after year after year…. Nothing changes. Surprise, surprise! DOT advises that an airline can operate pretty much any damn way it pleases, without advance notice to me or any of my fellow customer/traveler friends. Something about “operational privilege” and that this is the way this industry has always operated. Something about Rule 24 of the contract of carriage. Something Latin re: “force majeure” and “caveat emptor.”

    So, failthfully reading Cranky, I, go back to DOT again. Make reference to UA’s Monday night flight 1074 as an example of what I’m complaing about. (No, not the commotion in the cabin. Just how that Monday’s flight 1074 and this week’s subsequent flight 1074’s are a perfect example of the marketing I’m complaining about.)

    1. Jay B, so why do you continue to use Spirit? Do you believe their approach to maintenance on their aircraft is different than any organization within Spirit. If Spirit is charging to use the bin above the seat, you can bet they are doing the bare minimum to keep their aircraft running and safe. I am not interested in the disruption to my flight because an airline is poorly run, can’t handle winter storms, or a simple cancelled flight. My greatest concern, is that Spirit is doing the bare minimum to keep their aircraft safe. Are they really that safe?

      1. Just because (a) doesn’t mean (b). First, you can’t presume they are doing the bare minimum to keep the aircraft safe just because their business model is to price aggressively and charge for all extras; Second, even if you do make that leap, you can’t assume that “bare minimum” is equal to “unsafe.”

        The “bare minimum” for rocket launches is considered to be 100% safe. They don’t take chances, things still go wrong but the standard is 100%. The same might be said for aircraft; if they aren’t keeping up on aircraft maintenance it’ll eventually bite them in the ass. I’m always more concerned about pilot training and fatigue.

  8. you get what you pay for, and when your are on their web-site, you have to pay for every extra there is so nobody should complain they didn’t know there was a charge for that….if you aren’t happy, close their web-site and go to another….there isn’t cheap with free extra’s anymore…every time i see a catering truck at DAL for Southwest and it say’s, free snacks on board, i am thinking, what snacks….a bag with a few peanuts….i always bring my own “snacks”….people will complain about Spirit but will still fly them because of the fare….Southwest will join the trend of charging for checked bags, preferred seats and maybe over priced food on long haul flights…For now….Spirit is the low-fare airline of today and as long as people keep buying tickets, they will thrive even though people complain……

  9. Its just like watching Ryanair all over again. When i first flew with RYR in about 2007, the experience was absolutely dreadful. Had to pay for a bag that wasn’t overweight, dealt with a snobby and rude check-in woken and the plane had to turn around and come back because i missed it. It nearly ruined my holiday. Refused to fly them again for the next 4 years. But in 2011, Aer Lingus was just too expansive so i bit my lip and booked Ryanair. But this time I was prepared and managed to avoid extra charges. The legroom nearly killed me though. I’ve flown Ryanair every year until this summer and every single time I’ve gotten more clever and adapted to their business model. I book priority boarding, carry-ons only and always make it to the gate 30 minutes early. The same thing is going to happen with Spirit. Those that adapt will keep flying with them, those that don’t will leave in a dramatic and fiery fashion. With this LCC model, you get what you pay for and gotta understand how the airline operates. Or else you’ll get screwed, which is probably why all first-time flyers complain. If Spirit survives long enough, it will establish its frequent flyers

  10. “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.”
    Understatement of the year! Spirit may be be an interesting model, chasing whatever profits are available in the ULCC market, but when something breaks, Spirit also flies through every loophole that DOT and FAA allow. With rare frequency to some destinations and stuffed airplanes, when it breaks (or the weather turns sour) that ULCC ticket won’t get you very far. In C.C’s principal business, I can easily imagine that a C.C. subscriber, one on a Spirit flight that – for whatever reason cannot fly, is one of your worst nightmares. The options are few and even C.C.’s expertise has limits. Spirit is an airline suitable only for the leisure flyer with a fluid schedule and exceptionally good travel insurance, including a *pre-purchase* signup with Cranky. I do not cruise (it does not float my boat), but a cruise-bound flyer booked on a Spirit flight in trouble is probably Cranky’s worst nightmare. ‘Da boat don’t wait…’
    Flying ULCCs includes some risks. DOT/FAA regulations provide minimal protection and there are limits to what travel assistance firms like Cranky Concierge can do. They may speak the Airline and DOT languages, but the cannot repair broken airplanes nor make then fly in weather that you would not walk in. Go for that low fare, but also buy some insurance and access to a professional. The price goes back up to ~~ normal fares, but when something breaks, you’ve got a friend. (And keep your phone or other comm device charged. (www.amazon.com/Fenix-Portable-Charger-External-Indicator/dp/B00TE936IG/ref=sr_1_2?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1426881194&sr=1-2&keywords=Fenix+6000+mAh+Power) is a darn good place to start.
    Good post Brett!

    1. Cedarglen – Worst nightmare? Not at all. Spirit is far easier to deal with. If your plane breaks and you want to fly another airline, you can take a refund and buy another ticket. Easy. The other airlines have friendlier rules but they’re a log squishier. We had someone flying United down to Belize and was going to misconnect. There was an option on American, but the gate agent it was “too much work” to bother helping. By the time we found someone who would do what was right, it was too late. He was stuck overnight. So at least with Spirit you know exactly where you stand.

  11. I fly Spirit all the time out of DFW, in fact it’s my preferred carrier! I can get to most of the major destinations around the country – LAX, SAN, DEN, DTW, ATL, MSP, FLL, MCO, LGA, ORD, and others. Spirit is ‘no frills’! And I always add $90 to any round trip fare – $35 each way for a roller bag, and $10 each way for a seat assignment – necessities for me. With that, added to their fare, 9 times out of 10, they are the lowest. I love the fact they have no IFE. I can’t stand planes with IFE – they have no leg/foot room under the seat. Even with the seats crammed together on Spirit, I can at least stretch my legs under the seat. Are we such an ADD society we can fly for 3 or 4 hours with out TV/movies??

    I don’t mind paying $5 for a Coke and chips when I fly after saving an average of $100 over the other airlines on the same route – often times, it’ closer to $200 savings. The flight attendants have always been very pleasant and not old and grouchy like they are on the legacy carriers! But the best thing about flying Spirit…every airplane I’ve been on has been brand new!

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