If you’ve flown Spirit lately, you may have noticed something surprising: the airline is running a better operation than it has in years. It looks like it’s living up to the promise its new CEO made a year ago to actually run a better airline.
When Spirit’s previous CEO and architect of its ultra-low cost strategy, Ben Baldanza, left the airline, Bob Fornaro was brought in to replace him. Spirit has done a lot of things right, but it had issues, including what I consider to be its Achilles’ Heel, a poor operation. Last January, I wrote that I was cautiously optimistic about Bob.
I really hope this is someone who sees value in slowing things down and running a stellar operation. That would be a big change, but it’s one that everyone would welcome.
In the fourth quarter 2015 earnings call (done about a year ago), Bob made it clear that his vision was indeed to get the operation humming better than it was. But how long would it take for us to see changes? It turns out, the answer was May. That’s when Spirit was able to make some operational tweaks.
Now that we have the full year of Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Reports, we can look at the official numbers and see what kind of progress has been made. Normally I use masFlight’s real-time data for operational performance, but in this case, I like the official numbers. They are for domestic flights only, and since Spirit runs a very different kind of international operation than the other airlines, using domestic numbers seemed like the best way to get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible.
Here’s what Spirit’s on-time performance looks like for the year.
Not bad, huh? As you can see, the beginning of the year was fairly typical for Spirit, lagging far behind the other airlines. (Remember this is just the airlines that report in the US, so it doesn’t include the smallest guys, but it’s still a very good comparison.)
Once May rolled around, a new schedule and operational design clearly had an immediate and significant impact. The last quarter of the year saw the airline close the gap even more to a fairly respectable number.
And it’s not just on-time performance either. Spirit used to say it would try to never cancel a flight. It would just delay it forever and then eventually run it, but that wasn’t really true. It still lagged the other airlines in that department. Here’s how 2016 looked with that metric.
Other than a very bad October, which I didn’t have time to research but I assume is related to a specific event or set of events, Spirit has again improved its performance substantially when compared to the industry.
I don’t know that we’ll see much more improvement than this. My guess is Spirit is going to be happy sitting just below the industry’s average performance since it is going to try to run its airplanes harder than the rest to keep costs down. With any luck, I’ll be proven wrong and Spirit will strive to be better, but I can live with this kind of performance.
This is great news for people like me who are hesitant to fly Spirit because of its poor performance. Now that it’s running better, it should start creeping back into the decision set for a lot more travelers. (Frankly, a Big Front Seat is one of the best values in the sky, so combine it with an on-time flight and you’re sitting pretty.)
Of course, the relatively easy part is improving its operation. It’s a lot harder to improve its reputation. This will clearly take some time, and people will rightfully be wary that it’ll stick. But if Spirit does keep it up, then it’ll become much more competitive with other airlines.