Could Spirit’s Big Front Seat Be a Model for the Industry?

Seats, Spirit

If you’ve never had the chance to fly Spirit’s Big Front Seat, you might be surprised to hear that it’s probably one of the best values in flying today. It’s also an incredibly unique product which exists nowhere else I know. This model, a true no-frills premium cabin (yes I understand that sounds like a paradox) is worth looking at in more detail. Could this be done on a much grander scale in the future? Yes it could.

Spirit’s model for the Big Front Seat is incredibly simple. The name actually says it all. If you pay extra, you get a big seat in… wait for it… the front of the airplane. In fact, it’s a whole lot like the seat you’ll get in domestic First Class on any other airline. So why is it so different?

Well, it’s really just a big seat and nothing else. Traditionally, premium cabins have come with a host of frills that can range from priority boarding and lounge access to meals, free drinks, and hot towels. It has always been about the premium experience, not just the seat. And for that reason, it has come with a much heftier price tag.

Spirit, however, saw it differently. There are some people who don’t care about all that other stuff. They just want a bigger, more comfortable seat without any of the extra frills. That’s exactly what you get on Spirit. It’s the exact same service (or lack thereof) as people get in the other seats in coach. By de-coupling the seat from the service, Spirit can offer it for a whole lot less. This is why it can be one of the best values in air travel.

The industry has moved to the a la carte model over the last few years, but that’s been largely in the coach cabin only. This model could, and should, come to the premium cabin, and I’m not just talking about short-haul. I’d love even more to see it on long-haul as well.

If I think about flying from, say, Los Angeles to London, then what’s the difference between flying coach and business? The list is long. Think about the things like the large baggage allowance, lounge access, priority check-in, security, and immigration lines, upgraded food and dishware, better ratio of flight attendants to passengers, etc. Once you add all those things up and consider how much it costs, then you can understand that is not a cheap product to deliver.

I’m a perfect example of someone who would be interested in stripping all that fluff out. I love having a flat bed on long flights. You give me that and some form of inflight entertainment (matching what’s offered in coach), and I’m a happy camper. I’m not a big eater on airplanes and I don’t care about the the extra service, lounges, or priority check-in.

Just give me that seat at a premium far less than I’d pay for business, and I’m interested. Of course, there is concern about dilution. Will people buying those expensive business class seats buy down to the barebones product? That could sink this plan, but a test along with some research could easily determine that.

Where this gets even more interesting is when you think about what this can do operationally. It’s no secret that premium cabin demand varies greatly by route. New York to London has a ton of demand, but if that same airplane then flies New York to Budapest, demand tanks. It also varies by season, day-of-week, etc. You can’t easily just vary the number of business class seats you have on an airplane, but you could vary how many you sell as traditional business class and how many you sell as just a Big Front Seat. Create different offerings using the hardware that already exists onboard.

Some airlines have started to inch toward this model, but they’re making the same mistakes they did when going a la carte in coach… death by a thousand cuts.

British Airways, for example, angers a lot of people by charging for seat assignments in business class. It doesn’t fit with what business class should be. But if BA rolled out a no-frills Big Front Seat product and put it next to a traditional fare with the frills bundle, then it would be a different story.

I imagine we’re going to see something like this eventually. As long as the dilution threat can be dealt with, the idea seems too compelling to ignore.

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49 comments on “Could Spirit’s Big Front Seat Be a Model for the Industry?

  1. I flew Spirit from their start and always in the “Big Seat”. Your thoughts are prescient and sad. No frills flying may be the next step. The real story is you get to where you want to be.

  2. The price you pay with Spirit Airlines is not money ,but time !!! Their flights are ridiculously delayed or sometimes canceled.

    1. Agreed. I tend to be pretty price sensitive as a leisure traveler, but this more than anything is what really drives me away from booking on some of the ULCCs.

      If a carrier is running only 3 flights a week on a schedule and doesn’t have good numbers (or a good reputation) for overbooking and cancellations, IRROPs/overbooking/cancellations/etc may cause me to lose 1/3 or 1/2 of my planned weeklong vacation. The time off is much more important to me than saving a few bucks. I’ll pay a significant premium to reduce/eliminate that risk by flying on another airline with a better record and reputation.

    2. Yeah, amen. I would otherwise find some of their flights out of Belleville tempting. But flying frequently for leisure, I’m not willing to take the chance of cancellations.

    3. Completely FASLE. Spirit actually has less cancellations and delays than the legacy American Airlines. However, American Airlines has a larger volume of flights so it’s not as noticed as a few delays with Spirit. Do some research. I have. The last few months Spirit has had on time arrivals in the top 5 US based airlines.

      1. This is even more evident that Spirit usually has flights to a city when other airlines have cancelled. Spirit is all about revenue and cancellations don’t make money.

      2. 2015 Spirit was the bottom of the basement in on time service ,customer service and room on the jet. The leg room and seat ? comfort was and is still terrible. 2016 and /2017 customer complaints have gone down but ,the facts are the facts Spirit jets still are extremely uncomfortable ? and there has still been complaints about their employees on the phone with bad communication skills . I really don’t support companies who outsource US workers jobs to handle Day to Day operations to other countries! It’s really hurts our economy and just is un -AMERICAN .

        1. Outsourced, Spirit!? Yes, customer service. However, have you seen the legacies/majors?? They’re all in the game!

          BTW, I’ve flown NK several times, I have over 60K miles with them. I actually get better in flight service with NK, than any of the legacies! People complain because they have to pay for a Coke or chips on board. When I can fly DFW to LAX for $119 OW in a Big Front Seat, I don’t mind paying for a Coke and chips…get over it people! Or sitting in a regular seat for $50.

          You do run the risk of delays (never had a cancellation), and because of the limited number of flights, you have to wait. Part of pinching pennies, and if you know that going in, that’s fine…I don’t mind that. Some others don’t want to put up with it, that’s fine, NK may not be for you!

          And BTW, UAs and AAs seat comfort wasn’t any better. After flying both, I’ll stick with NK!

          1. I fly with Sun Country Airlines now. They are a Minnesota Airline . I just enjoy ? there friendly service! There 1st Class I really enjoy ,I believe time ,comfort and convenience are more important than budget basement flights that spirit airlines raves about .Spirit airlines is not for me ,either for family ,vacation or work I cannot risk having flights consistently late or cancelled and being extremely uncomfortable ?Also Sun Country has a great frequent flyer program ,called The “UFLY ” program you can pool your with friends and family which is a great program. On Tuesday’s SUN COUNTRY offers some great discounted fairs .

      3. Not sure why someone would lie to defend Spirit, but your claims are provably false.
        According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, over the last year of available data (July 2016-June 2017), AA’s on time rate was 79.08%, and NK’s was 75.99. Looking at the last 2 months of available data (May 2017-June 2017), NK has been behind AA, AS, DL, UA, WN, F9, and all of the regional carriers. The only airlines with lower on time than NK were B6 and VX.
        Spirit’s high delay and cancellation rate is made worse by the fact that they operate so few flights on each route. If my flight on Delta to LAX is delayed 6 hours, there’s another one that sooner that I can get moved to. If I’m on Spirit, they fly it once a day, so I’m stuck.

        You can find all of the on time data here if you don’t believe me:

      4. but what you actually get from a big carrier is the ability to recover after a cancellation or delay. fewer planes and less frequency on their routes cause extra pain for passengers when something goes wrong. i definitely consider that as part of my travel decisions.

  3. I remember, years ago, that Peoplexpress had a premium cabin in their 747s. If I recall, the means available there *were* different from those available in coach, but they were still a buy-on-board add-on. Not quite as “pure” a seat-only product as this, but still along the same lines.

  4. Count me in favor of this, especially if you can get a lot of the benefits you’d be missing through airline loyalty programs. If I’m able to pay for biz class and fly an airline where I have high status, the lounge access, checked baggage allowance, and priority boarding all come free anyway. Let me choose to then add on meals and/or adult beverages if I want them. It’s unclear how much this might drop the cost of sitting “up front”, but it’s definitely worth looking into. Heck, it might even have the positive effect of increasing the quality of food and beverage offerings if people are willing to pay for them — or not!

  5. You bring up a good point. A lot of the perks in premium, while nice, are just fluff that I don’t really need. Honestly one of my favorite things about sitting up front is being first off the plane, rather than row 39 of a single aisle aircraft. It’s also quite nice to not worry if the person next to me will be the 300# guy in the departure lounge. If I really want food & booze in flight I’m happy to pay for that a la carte.

  6. Would never fly Spirit…ever. If you wrote another airline’s “Big Front Seat” than yes, maybe.

  7. Air Asia X’s flatbed seat is worth looking at as well, it’s kind of a hybrid of Spirit’s Big Front Seat and a traditional business class. The seat is angled flat, which is fine for the flights that Air Asia X’s A330s fly. Service is the same in coach, but you do get some “add-ons” like priority check-in, a large baggage allowance, and a free tablet for entertainment. Probably the closest to what is described here in a long-haul environment.

  8. The airlines that have premium economy just need to put two narrow body first class seats in the same space as three coach seats, and there you go, a big front seat. I think people paying premium economy would rather sit two by two then a row of three with a little more leg room.

    Personally I’d rather have an aisle coach seat then sit in that middle premium economy seat.

  9. I completely agree. I fly premium only for the more comfortable seat. I don’t care about the meal, the movies or the hot towels. Give me a seat where I don’t have to feel wedged in for three or four hours, and I’m happy. I’d much rather pay an up charge in Economy than a budget buster in First. Just not on Spirit.

  10. Here’s the problem with no frills big seats. Most of the cost of say domestic first over economy to the airlines is square feet taken up by the seats. Consider a big seat in domestic first with 38″ pitch and in 2+2 configuration instead of coach at 30″ pitch and 3+3 configuration. The first class takes up 90% more space. So on a space basis it should cost 90% more. Spirit doesn’t charge that premium.

    I believe the Big Seat is to accommodate pilots who have to fly on the plane. If they don’t need it for pilots, they sell it to their regular customers who wouldn’t be flying on Spirit unless they were penny pinchers and penny pinchers aren’t going to pay that 90% premium. The fact that there are very few Big Seats per plane supports my analysis.

    1. jonathan reed —

      You don’t have “Big Front Seat” on a narrow body for crew purposes. If they do, then Spirit pilots have one hell of a contract. You find them on international flights where more than two pilots are required, but domestic? Nope. In theory, they *could* be used for deadheading crew, but if the airline is deadheading crew so often that they need to add the Big Front Seat, they’re doing something very wrong.

      The reason there are very few Big Front Seats is that there aren’t many people willing to pay more than absolutely necessary. Look at back at American’s More Room Throughout Coach in the late 90’s; this product failed because American couldn’t command a price premium. United’s approach, Economy Plus, was implemented during the same time period, and is still in use today.

      1. Why does Amercan’s MRTC (or before that, TWA) always play the bogey man for those who insist crappy seats in coach and crappy airline service is what people really want when a successful, much better managed airline, such as jetblue, proves otherwise? Hmmmm.

    2. This is a totally valid point. Will the company be able to generate more revenue having much larger seats 2 by 2 vs the normal 3 by 3. Doubt it. Over the course of a year on how many flights would they be able to actually sell those two missing seats ?? I would think quite a lot.

  11. @CF

    Yup, I’m a space king. I’ll fly the LCC’s in Asia and Europe precisely because they allow me to buy the exit row seat for a reasonable charge. Contrast that to the years gone by of US legacy carriers, where the only way you could get the seat is to be an elite or full fare Y.

    Even domestic first doesn’t have much in the way of “service” that is worth noting. Meals aren’t served on every flight. Free booze and early boarding are the most notable.

    Lounge access does matter to me on a long layover, especially on international flights. It’s of less use at my origin.

  12. Spirit is a good step, but AirAsia may be the better model. Not only can you select Hot Seats (their version of Big Front Seats), but you can also get add-on in-flight premium items like meals ahead of time.

    Personally, when I fly Spirit I don’t take any of the frills because it’s usually for trips lasting a few days, but on AirAsia traveling with others the Value Packs (seat, bag and meal) offers a fair price for items I need and still undercuts the legacies.

  13. I kind of agree. I still don’t like an airline that charges me money to put my own carry on in the bin. But, I do agree that sitting in First Class is mostly about the seat. Since, I don’t really drink more than a drink a week, free booze isn’t much of a benefit and if I know that I’m not going to get dinner, I could get something even better to go at the airport. So, something like is a good idea. I’m just not sure that the Spirit model of having absolutely nothing else included is the right way to go.

    Also, your picture on the main page of this article looks very tropical. More fun in Hawaii?

    1. southbay – That was weird Yes, that was Moloka’i and will be in tomorrow’s post, so I have no clue how it got in there on the front page. I fixed it.

  14. The costs of ‘frills’ such as lounge access, premium check-in counters, etc. offered in business/first class are spread over all the passengers that purchase that product today. If customers are given the opportunity to strip them out, the airline cost per passenger purchasing the ‘frills’ will increase. Either the price of frills will have to increase to cover the cost (further reducing demand), or the frills will over time be eliminated. While this may not necessarily be a bad thing, it certainly will eliminate some of the ability to choose what you want because some frills provided today simply won’t be offered. In the customary airline race to the bottom, we will end up with only the choice of a big seat or an economy seat with all other extras being common across both cabins (meals, beverages, etc.).

  15. Cranky

    I really think your article should be entitled “Could Spirit’s Big Front Seat be one big step to the bottom!

    I feel that you are way off base when you say that that kind of argument is compelling. It is only compelling if you believe that a big seat is the only (or event the main) reason people will upgrade to business or first.

    I am a 1K, Million Mile flyer with United and I do not know of anyone that pays for, or gets upgraded to first just to have more seat room.

    While the big seat might be good news for a ULCC or LCC, there are other benefits that we (who really like to “turn left”) do not want to be nickel and dimed by the legacy carriers.

    All you have to do is enjoy the complimentary upgrade along with the freshly made hot fudge sundae on a dinner flight from San Fran to Chicago along with the great dinner and drinks and sometimes conversation too, to understand it is much more than just the seat.

    The enjoyment is even greater in international travel where a lie flat bed, extensive wine list and wonderful food compliments the larger seat.

    I, for one, feel that un-bundling services is only a way to make more money and not provide a better or less expensive product. Note that they call in “ancillary revenue” NOT ” ancillary make up the price of the ticket that we lowered the price on because we removed all of those nasty ancillary revenue items that now you will purchase ala carte”!

    If you are such a fan of un-bundling maybe you should stick a price tag of $10 on your hot fudge sundae in your banner at the top of the page.

    I think that if the big seat option with un-bundled drinks/food were deployed on the legacy carriers, there would be a revolt of us business flyers and if only one carrier stayed the first/business as it is today… that is where all the traffic and revenue would go!

    For those that are not familiar with the term… “turning left” below is an link to an article that humorously discuses it!

    1. “I am a 1K, Million Mile flyer with United and I do not know of anyone that pays for, or gets upgraded to first just to have more seat room.”

      Seriously? Then what do they pay hundreds of dollars extra for? The pre-departure beverage?

      1. It appears it must have been awhile since you flew United.

        Some of us get complimentary upgrades. Most of us are already in econ plus so the upgrade is for the food (on most flights at least snacks if not a full meal) and the drinks.

        Recently United has been competitively pricing upgrades from econ to first for sometime $59 or $79 dollars.

        The only time I have ever paid more that $99 for an upgrade (it was $199 so technically in your “hundreds of dollars” range) recently is when I upgraded both ways on ANA from Narita to Hong Kong and back. And I can assure you… that was for more than just a big seat! :)

        1. You are right, it’s been a while since I’ve flown United. But on any airline, the main reason to upgrade is the more comfortable seat. This is particularly true on long-haul flights. If you’re more interested in the food, you can buy food in the terminal and bring it with you, and it will be cheaper than the upgrade and better quality than what they would have served you in the premium cabin.

      2. I’m a Million Miler and 1K as well. What I have found is that the airlines have become “smart” about first class. When I started traveling, first was ridiculously expensive relatively to coach. But United sold domestic upgrade coupons for $20 per 500 flight miles. They effectively were giving away first class for between $40 and $80 each way.

        Today, they’re yield managing first class, which makes all the sense in the world. I’ve found even with 1K that upgrades just don’t happen that often anymore.

        The Spirit concept is interesting in many ways. Nobody flies domestic first for the food, which can best be characterized as Contemporary Frozen Dinner Fare. The booze is nice but the wine generally is a step above Ripple or some other stuff people drank at night in high school hidden on the side of a hill. If you’re flight is less than two hours, “fine dining” comes in a Lay’s bag.

        At United, the service got better after Commander Jeff was executed and the flight attendants tend to be friendly. But the amenities we used to get as 1Ks, Premier Executives and even Premiers has been so watered down that you can now buy it if you want it.

        Case in point: United once had a dedicated 1K lounge and customer service center at ORD. The only way one knew it was there was a gold 1K logo on the door. You buzzed in. That’s been gone for years. United’s Boarding priority has left 1Ks in the dust and while there are some amenities (dedicated check-in centers), these are superfluous since most of us check in automatically.

        That’s why I think Spirit is the way of the future. Spirit is about two steps ahead of the legacy carriers in understanding what customers want and while I’ve never flown them, I suspect Spirit’s move will find its way to Domestic First VERY soon. Just like Basic Economy.

    2. For me, the primary draw of first class is the bigger seat. When was the last time you had a “great dinner” on board a domestic flight in the US? Not every flight is even a meal flight. Free drinks? Sure, but that’s easy to quantify — shouldn’t non drinkers get a cheaper ticket?

      For the longest time you had the legacy carriers charging too much for first class, and subsequently, giving away too many seats to frequent flyers. Delta is trying to figure out how to monetize the cabin and give away less — the trick is figuring out how much people are willing to pay for various level of service.

      If I’m not checking a bag, should I get a discount? If I don’t drink, should I get a discount?

      1. I flew SFO – BOS last month and actually had a really tasty lunch. Maybe the best food I’ve had on a domestic flight. My favorite meal so far is on Air NZ with Cathay just behind it.

  16. So take a hypothetical $5k business class flat seat from SFO to LHR (RT). How much could you effectively shave off by removing the frills if you are UA, BA, etc.?

    As someone mentioned, as an elite I still get free bags and lounge access (unless they eliminate that as part of the fare class).

    Let’s say they charge me $30 for the meal, $10 for drinks. Would the cost go down so significantly that the fare would suddenly seem like a bargain? That big flag seat still occupies a significantly larger footprint than a coach seat.

    1. For what it is worth, I was once told the International First Class service in the 1990s during the Stephen Wolf era at United Airlines cost about $250 per passenger. That was over 20 years ago and included Beluga cavier, Dom Perigion champagne, lobster salads and a prime rib or fish entree that was out of this world.

      I recognize United’s International Premium Class service isn’t what it was when Wolf was in charge, but $30.00 for food and $10 for booze ain’t even close to the true cost. Think about it — it has to be prepared in a flight kitchen, trucked to an airplane, stored in specially built racks and served on airplane-specialty china and flatware. The international service on the legacy carriers is a significant step up from the domestic crap we get and the costs go with it.

      Even today, I would not be surprised if the catering in Polaris or other premium cabin services was on par with what United paid 20 years ago on an all-in basis.

    2. Oliver – It’s definitely more than $40. You can also think about the costs of buying lounge access (in places where the airline doesn’t have a lounge). The cost of increased staffing for premium check in matters.
      There’s also the cost of paying for fast pass immigration/security in some places. It can really add up.

      But to me where this is most interesting is in the ability to flex how much business class you sell depending upon the route. It gives the airline another tool to fill those seats without relying on upgrades. The example I like most is the summer flying AA is doing next year from Philly to Budapest. That airplane might need to fly one day from Philly to Zurich where there’s higher demand for business class. You can’t change the configuration, but maybe you sell only half the business class seats on a flight to Budapest and then staff it that way. It just gives more flexibility.

  17. I flew a lot across the pond always connecting in London with a few times in Frankfurt. Always flew Business or First.

    I would totally downgrade it. I carry on even for 2 weeks of travel over there. For me, I care about the seat and the lounge access and the drinks. Food is still “meh”. Lounge access is a must for the 4 hour layovers.

  18. I see Sally Rogers was moonlighting as a stewardess on Spirit DC-8s in 1963. Must have been during the summer break of the Alan Brady Show. Well, she was always looking for a husband, and I guess she decided that Herman Glimscher just wasn’t going to be the guy.

  19. It’s a bit like putting velvet seats in McDonald’s. Sure there’s a market for them (there’s a market for everything!), but most people who care about them also care about table service and upgraded food.

    Modern life is a collection of “things we don’t need”: comfy cars (basic cars would do), large homes (small apartments would do), and on and on and on. Business class and premium experience is just another “thing we don’t need” but which many Americans, whose average citizen is firmly in the top 10% of worldwide income, are willing to pay for.

    1. Or if you’re a bigger person who just wants to be comfortable. I’m 5’5 and thin and my friend is 6’7 and not thin…folks like us shouldn’t be forced to sit next to each other. This is a great way for folks like him (and in turn, folks like me) to be comfortable in our seats, without having to shell out for full business or first.

  20. I have always flew spirit and I have never experienced any delays till this hurricane Harvey and they have been so good to try and make things good for me. I will never stop flying Spirit

  21. People generally don’t like Spirit, but I actually don’t mind them. They fly large airplanes from my markets, ORD – MYR and I can always get the ‘Big Front’ seats and a checked bag cheaper than the only other carrier on this route – United. And NK’s flight times are better. Yeah if a flight cancels/delays there are no other alternatives, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take for the price. I’d actually prefer the majors to have less legroom but wider seats. I prefer to not rub elbows with the person next to me. Just more comfortable.

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