Spirit Finally Starts Climbing Its Way Out of the Doom Spiral

Operations, Spirit, Weather

Operational disruptions happen all the time, but an operational disruption like the one Spirit has been experiencing? That is much rarer event. The last time I can remember something like this happening was the JetBlue Valentine’s Day Massacre in 2007. That was a long time ago, and it had far-reaching impacts on the airline. Spirit’s disruption looks like it’s probably even worse.

Things had been going swimmingly for Spirit for the last couple years with just a few hiccups. Former CEO Bob Fornaro had come in and prioritized fixing the operation at the airline, which had historically been known for being consistently unreliable. He and the team did not mess around and got the airline into a good place.

After Bob left and Ted Christie took over as CEO, the airline had made some efforts to increase aircraft utilization so it could keep costs low. That led to a couple of operational issues, but the airline made tweaks to get back to a respectable position. It’s a delicate balance. Then the end of July hit.

Spirit’s Disruption is Far Worse Than American’s

You’ve probably seen the news lazily try and lump together American and Spirit since both had operational issues at the same time, and both blamed them on weather. But these couldn’t have been more different.

I turned to masFlight to pull operational data so I could illustrate this. Let’s start with percent of flights completed by day.

Completion Factor by Airline July 29 – August 8

Data via masFlight

The weather really hurt American at DFW, so I included both systemwide and DFW departures so you could compare. But really, it is no comparison. American had already recovered before Spirit hit its worst day.

American, of course, is a much larger airline so when it and Spirit cancel the same percentage of flights, American impacts far more people. For American, this is pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to operational problems on a bad thunderstorm day where the airline guesses wrong.

Spirit, as you can see, went four days without operating even half of its flights. It went 9 days where it canceled at least 15 percent of its departures. That is a catastrophic meltdown. So what exactly happened?

What Caused the Problem for Spirit

Spirit has been blaming three different things during the meltdown. It says bad weather was a problem, but so were staffing shortages. Oh, and there was an IT outage.

I think of bad weather as the trigger. Airlines can never perfectly predict what’s going to happen. Sometimes the weather is better than expected and flights were canceled even though they didn’t have to be. Otherwise, the weather is worse and things get ugly. In the summer, those thunderstorms can be unpredictable. The airline’s ops team has to make the best decisions it can, and sometimes those go the wrong way. It sounds like that’s what happened here.

When weather hits, airplanes and crews will be in the wrong places. It’s up to the airline to try to put things back together again, and that can take some time. Here’s where gas gets poured on the fire.

First, Spirit has a staffing shortage, so that means there is less ability to push people into the system to free up logjams. Then, a well-placed IT outage could very well be the nail in the coffin.

In fact, it looks like there may have been multiple IT outages. The AFA flight attendant union said in a release on August 3 that there was “another” crew scheduling system outage that locked schedulers out for over an hour.

This is where things enter the “rare” zone. At some point, things are so out of whack, that any effort to recover can actually plunge the airline deeper into trouble. When everything came together here, it sounds like Spirit might not have even known where its crews were at various points. When that happens, there’s only one thing to do: shut it down and reset.

This is what happened in that snowstorm in New York in 2007 with JetBlue. It thought it could just fly through the weather and it most definitely could not. Things got worse and worse until they had to do a reset. Spirit took way too long to realize it needed to do that, but eventually it did.

Domestic vs Non-Domestic Completion Factor

Data via masFlight

It looks like after Monday, August 2, Spirit made a decision to crush the domestic operation and try to keep some semblance of an international operation flying, where there are far fewer reaccommodation options. (I reached out to Spirit to try to get some clarity, but I never heard back.)

By August 4, Spirit’s international operation had finally completed more than 50 percent of flights. Domestically, however, it remained mired closer to 30 percent and didn’t pass 50 percent until two days later when it just barely scraped above the halfway point. Now it looks to be layering in more and more.

The recovery is well underway, but it’s choppy. Some stations are doing better than others. Here’s a look at completion factor by Spirit’s ten largest airports.

Spirit Departure Completion Factor For Top-10 Airports By Volume

Data via masFlight

It’s a little messy, but the yellow shading is the system average. With the exception of Orlando, the top 10 stations did fairly well early on, but you can see on Aug 2 when strategic decisions were made. All of a sudden, Atlanta, Myrtle Beach, and Houston took a turn for the worse. Later, as the recovery began, you see LAX taking a hit. Presumably the airline is prioritizing its core markets first, and LAX way out on the West Coast will have to recover later.

Spirit may finally get this under control this week with operations getting back to normal, but there’s still so much more to deal with. There were thousands and thousands of impacted passengers. Some of those people took matters into their own hands and people working Spirit flights probably have PTSD from the experience. (I’ve heard all kinds of horrible rumors about the anarchy that happened in San Juan.)

There will be a post-mortem, and fingers will be pointed. But ultimately, Spirit has a lot of pieces to pick up here, and we’ll see how this experience impacts their future planning efforts. At JetBlue, CEO David Neeleman took the blame and was replaced by his COO Dave Barger. At Spirit, we’ll see where the axe falls and what that means for the future.

44 comments on “Spirit Finally Starts Climbing Its Way Out of the Doom Spiral

  1. Spirit isn’t climbing out of anything. While the conditions for its meltdown are partly attributed to pandemic induced staffing shortages, heavy demand, and other operational challenges resulting from the pandemic that are beyond the industry’s control, Spirit’s problems are largely its own thanks to a paper thin business model and an unsustainable one at that. Unclear if they’ll recover fully and frankly, couldn’t care less.

    1. Good Lord. Who tinkled in your Cheerios this morning? A little empathy for Spirit’s employees who would be out of a job if they didn’t recover, would be nice…instead of “Frankly, couldn’t care less.”

  2. It’s not entirely fair, but when there are multiple issues facing an airline, it does give me pause about flying with them. Are they pushing the envelope on maintenance protocols just to get planes back up in the air? What else is lacking?

  3. “Staffing shortage” is being really, really generous here, as this is 100% a self-created problem from Spirit. It sure seems like the bottom of the barrel may have been reached, or close to it as far as staffing a customer facing operation almost entirely by third-party contractors (FLL excepted). The pandemic accelerated this shortage issue of course, but in most cases you get what you pay for and that indeed applies to the human element as well.

    Spirit deserves every last bit of criticism it receives from this mess, but I doubt it will lead to any kind of sudden awakening on improving the people part of its operation.

    1. Allegiant and Frontier are actually lower.
      They do not have ground staff anywhere, it is 100% contractors.
      Even in large stations like F9 in DEN and G4 in LAS and SFB.

  4. Cranky’s analysis was very well done and informative. However, the one thing lacking was a description of the hell that Spirit put their passengers through. Yes, I know of the alleged attacks on employees in SJU, FLL and MCO. That’s not right. But also not right is stranding thousands of paying customers for hours (or days) at airports, left to wait in gargantuan lines that don’t move. These people have places to be and can’t get out of their own hell that was brought to them by Spirit. Nor are they the sorts of flyers that have the means to reaccomodate themselves. They don’t have status, they don’t have Priority Pass. Many had trouble scrounging up the bucks for a meal. Yes, you can argue about why people with such limited means are traveling by air. Good question, but Spirit (and Frontier and Allegiant) attract that crowd. And over the last week or so, Spirit treated theirs like excrement. That’s a disgrace.

    The saddest part of all is, if their fares are cheap, many people will stupidly fly with them again in the future.

    1. I agree fully. It would be most interesting to hear some of the actual stories from stranded passengers, if Cranky could connect with any of them and do some interviews. I would think such a story might have a couple of positive impacts, including alerting potential fliers to the potential pitfalls of just going after the lowest fare on a carrier that doesn’t have much in the way of reserves or a backup plan, and it may help to further a ‘flier bill of rights’ as was noted in another post.

      Just my humble opinion….

  5. The comparison to the JetBlue irop is really not valid. The operational meltdown that they has as well as AA, UAL, and Delta was caused by a once a decade blizzard that hit NYC several hours before the forecasts said it would and was many times worse that the forecast called for. Also JetBlue’s operational meltdown was inline with all the other airlines that had NYC hubs. Did JetBlue learn a lesson from the storm, yes it radically changed the way they handle irops. But the big difference I’d JetBlue has a reputation to protect, spirit does not.

    1. Agreed. Also, JetBlue had too many eggs in one JFK basket (although they still put too many in that one). A massive weather outage at JFK impacted so many of their resources as to take down much of their system. Sprit has no such issue, they’re pretty spread out such that no one weather event should be any more devastating than a typical dispatching headache.

      1. The spread out nature of Spirit’s operation actually makes it more difficult to recover disruptions. Granted, this means regional weather will have a smaller impact on the operation overall. However, with a lot of point-to-point flying that does not touch crew bases, an entire line of flying can be lost pretty quickly.

  6. This further reinforces the need for an EU style passenger bill of rights in this country with financial penalties for airlines that fail to deliver on what was promised.

    Spirit can and will rebound from this because there are consumers willing to “roll the dice” if they can get a $39 fare to Disney. What kind of other repercussions will Spirit experience from this? Maybe some lost revenue over the next few month? That’s it. There’s literally nothing to discourage Spirit from doing this again as they’ll continue their reliance on 3rd party contractors and lean staffing because that’s the most cost effective option. Until they have to shell out a few hundred bucks a person because they failed to get PAX where they needed to be, this will keep happening.

    I don’t fly G4 or NK for a reason – IROPS. When things go south, my status and robust legacy airline network gives me numerous backup options. It’s not worth saving a few bucks to be stranded in some outpost waystation.

    1. > I don’t fly G4 or NK for a reason – IROPS. When things go south, my status and robust legacy airline network gives me numerous backup options. It’s not worth saving a few bucks to be stranded in some outpost waystation.

      Exactly this, and I tell my non-avgeek friends the same thing. Don’t forget that Spirit stranded people in Mexico not long ago after it cancelled flights.

      I have a friend whose flight on G4 was cancelled this weekend. She was fortunate; while she lost the vacation she had planned, it was to visit family, so she didn’t lose out on nonrefundable portions of rental car, hotel, or activity deposits, though she easily could have. When I reminded my friend that events like this are why I try to warn her away from Allegiant and Spirit, the response I got was, “I know, but the fare was cheap and it was a nonstop, so I took my chances, and lost.”

      1. Kilroy – You mention strandings in Mexico. Are you thinking of Sun Country when it pulled out of Mazatlan early?

        1. Cranky,

          Yes, I believe you are right. I knew I should have Googled that, can’t rely on my memory these days. I apologize and appreciate the correction.

          I get the sense that Sun Country may be slightly better in terms of operational issues, and I don’t live in the area of the country that they serve, but if I did I’d still be a bit hesitant to fly them, for similar reasons.

          To Spirit’s credit (and as you showed, which I thought was very interesting, and a great idea to make the comparison), it was smart and prioritized the recovery of international flights. As a worst case for people who absolutely have to get home, most people can rent a car and drive home from (say) Orlando to Baltimore; it’s a little harder to do that when you’re stuck in Bucaramanga, Colombia.

  7. CF…..Excellent use of graphs to tell the tale, not only system-wide, but in individual large stations as well. Perfect dissection.

  8. Everyone always wants to think the other guy is worse while excusing their own failings.
    The best way to provide accountability fir airline service failures is to either levy fines by the government or to allow customers to book something on their own with another airline at the expense of the first airline if they cannot be protected within x amount off time of their original arrival time and then for the DOT to publish protection information by airline, city, and route. In other words a mandatory rule 240.
    Spirit won’t have to spend anything what they should and neither did JetBlue years ago.
    Big airlines naturally can recover faster. Little airlines esp but all airlines should not be allowed to screw over customers and no one knows how bad it has been with that airline

  9. This is a real, not rhetorical question: why does it take an airline so long to climb out of a hole like this?
    I would think, naively, that once a big meltdown occurred, an airline could take one day to completely de-prioritize completing flights and instead reset the system pretty-much totally. Move planes to their positions for the next morning. In so doing, concentrate on using flight crew that won’t time-out in the process, and give all the others enough rest to make them legal again. Move the flight crew into positions, either on the repositioning flights or on other airlines. For a non-global airline like this, it seems to me that this should mostly be do-able in 24 hours if it becomes the operational priority.
    Obviously, airline logistics is overseen by smart people, so I’m clearly wrong about this. Where?

    1. Grichard – It’s a great question, and it’s one that’s definitely for someone more ops-focused than I. One thing I will say, however, is that when things get this bad, it’s not even a matter of getting your airplanes and people in the right place. It’s figuring out where your people actually are in the first place. I know that sounds crazy, but when it’s this ugly, it’s not unheard of for airlines to lose track of crews. And Spirit’s automation sounds like it’s not very sophisticated, so that makes things even worse when trying to get a full picture of what’s happening.

      Now, if an airline sees something coming and shuts it down, then it will be able to recover more quickly. But once you are already deep into the muck — as was the case with JetBlue in 2007 — it gets far harder to put humpty dumpty back together again.

      1. JetBlue also had a melt down in early January 2014, to the point they basically shut the airline down on January 6 and restarted from scratch.

        IIRC, in addition to winter snowstorms, new crew duty days regs was part of their excuse for the melt down.

        I ended up with house guests for an extra three days over that.

  10. Agree with the commenters that have 0 sympathy/respect for Spirit winning the race to the bottom, and sadly, share the pessimism that consumers will quickly forget and not punish Spirit for it. That’s why I think its time for some tougher regulations on minimum standards of service for US carriers.

  11. I am going to disagree, strongly, with those demanding the government step in.

    Why do we need this?

    If someone chooses to spend $79 on round trip airfare when the competition is charging $279, should they REALLY be surprised if they get stranded? Come on people, you get what you pay for, and if you pay K Mart prices sometimes you get K Mart service.

    This kind of thing is actually the best thing that can happen, believe it or not. The more operations like Spirit get into the news for screwing up, the more people will realize what they are getting from them, and look elsewhere.

    If you are looking at used cars and one is half the price of the others, would it be a huge shock to find out it’s a lemon? Of course not.

    1. I wish it weren’t the case, but many industries have products that are both profitable and bad for consumers. Think sub-prime mortgages, certain prescription drugs, payday lenders, alcohol & tobacco products, etc. The free market has proven time and time again that you can make money while doing harm to people – a line I believe Spirit crossed while making families sleep on airport floors for days at a time. That’s when its time for a regulator to step in. I’m not for regulation for the sake of it, but only when the bad actor has proven its necessary.

      1. The question, Sam, is what happens when you enforce that?

        What happens is you out the Spirits and Frontiers out of business. And you increase fares across the board, pricing a lot of people out of air travel completely.

        Be careful of unintended consequences. The reason these guys have such low fares is that they run bare bones operations. You make them hire enough people to make sure this kind of thing never ever happens, and those fares go away.

        And the people using them wind up on the bus or driving.

    2. The problem is you are giving too much credit to the American consumer. We can espouse the benefits of a free market all we want but at the end of the day, most consumers can’t be “trusted” to make the right decision.

      For all those NK PAX who were stranded, do you think they’re thinking, “you know – this is the decision I made and therefore, I must accept the consequences. Based on the contract of carriage, the airline is only required to refund my ticket price and now I must make my own way back to Detroit (or any other NK base).”

      Personally, I’ve made some bad flight decisions before (tight connections, etc.) but I did it fully aware of the consequences and got burned a few times. Granted, I’m a sophisticated traveller so I knew EXACTLY what I was doing. Most consumers simply aren’t that well informed. As for your used car example, sadly, there are people that can be preyed upon to think they are actually getting a good deal.

      Americans (and most humans for that matter) simply aren’t that smart.

      1. “The problem is you are giving too much credit to the American consumer. We can espouse the benefits of a free market all we want but at the end of the day, most consumers can’t be “trusted” to make the right decision.”

        Yes exactly. I would also add & this will fly in the face of conventional wisdom here, but there is no such thing as the “free market.” It’s a complete fantasy based on absolutely nothing.

        1. Spot on. If we had a “free market,” all the airlines would be out of business (except for a few) as a result of Covid and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

    3. Consumers, regardless of the price, buy their tickets with the expectation that their flights will be operated and reasonably close to on-time. Because the majority of the readers of this blog are generally well-educated travelers doesn’t mean that we should serve as the judge and jury of what consumers should consider an acceptable resolution to their travel irregularities, if they occur.

      The irony of throwing stones at Spirit is that today they have cancelled just 10 flights (1% by flightaware’s rounding) while American and United are both over 50 mainline cancellations, Envoy has another 80+, and Southwest is over 130 at the time I write this.
      American and Southwest have cancelled at least 2% of their flights on far more days of this summer than they have not – and have repeatedly begun the day doing so.

      If the DOT wants to provide the same level of buyer information that many other industries are required to provide, then more information on the number of passengers and percentage of their flights that have been delayed and cancelled is needed.

      Spirit had a spectacular failure but to excuse the regular, rolling delays that are other airlines’ operations on a regular basis is just plain hypocritical.

      Waiting over 2 months to publish DOT on-time and delay statistics needs to be sped up considerably.

      And the FAA ATC map right now has all kinds of delays on it. Delay and cancellation numbers will get worse before the end of the day for many, but not all of Spirit’s larger competitors.

      1. Make sure to check the weather @Tim Dunn when looking at cancel numbers… lots of lunch time diversions to MKE out of chicagoland due to storms yesterday and then additional cancellations due to evening storms and tornado watches. And what 3 airlines have major operations in the area???

        One of these days mother nature will pay Atlanta a visit and we can see how the local airline businesses handle it.

        1. Over a significant enough period of time – say a year – weather can’t be an excuse. If weather persists, then airlines should adapt their operations.

  12. Staffing shortages are a major player, just like every major airline right now, that’s what happens when the government pays people just enough money to stay home and not have to do entry level work (like all airlines require)

    Thanks Biden

    1. I assume you don’t have a customer facing job? If you did you wouldn’t make such an ill informed comment.

      1. Not sure what that means. It’s a nationwide problem affecting EVERY industry . What does me not having a “customer facing job” have to do with it and how am I “ill informed”

    2. Capitalism offers a simple solution: if current wages don’t get you enough workers, raise the wages.

      The enhanced unemployment benefits have expired in most states, and even where they haven’t most workers know that they eventually will and won’t pass up decent job offers just to sit on their butts for a couple more months.

      This is even more true when you factor in the risk of being exposed to COVID, especially with the Delta variant (a/k/a the DeSantis variant here in Florida) for those low-paying jobs that all too often don’t provide health insurance and require working around morons who can’t (or won’t) follow the simplest rules to reduce transmission. Also, many of the workers who would normally work these positions have had (and are still having) issues around things like remote schooling, where a parent has to be home and can’t work.

      1. Yes capitalism offers a simple solution but not when the government is at direct odds with it. Enhanced unemployment forces companies to raise their minimum wage to get people to make more money than the government will pay them to sit at home. That is not capitalism that is the government destroying the economy

  13. Interesting insight Brett. You have valid points and I see your fan base also brings up good points. At the end of the day….buying passage on a US ULCC is a crap shoot. I constantly warn my infrequent flyer friends that the cheap seat to XXX comes with strings. Strings primarily tied around your wrists. They simply don’t have the resources to bounce back from an aberration. Aberration being severe weather or broken plane in Des Moines.

    Now don’t get me wrong….. I have been ‘stuck’ an airports by every legacy network carrier. (Including ones that I was working for and on duty as an active crew member). But depending on the severity of the situation bounce back was a matter of hours….not days.

    While I support theoretical idea of holding carriers accountable I’m afraid that government intervention is the last thing that passengers or airlines need. As with other well-intentioned legislation, by the time the lawyers & lobbyists finish tweaking, redacting, adding and protecting their client interests you end up with a murky mess like Sarbanes-Oxley Act or Dodd-Frank. Perhaps mandatory membership into the IATA in conjunction with trade organization censure could mitigate some of this foolishness.

    BTW…. Speaking of crew being “stuck”… Are you going to do an article about the APA/APFA and SWAPA grievances on hotel irregularities? And it’s not just happening there…. it’s becoming a bit more normalized industry-wide.

      1. By hotel irregularities I’m not talking about the bar not being open. I’m talking about crews getting to their destination, late, to find that their rooms have been sold or they are being “walked” to another property. Or in a few cases having to get on a hotel site & pay their own way. Another issue is waiting forever for transpo to the hotel.
        All fine & good on a 20 hours layover….not so good on a minimum 11.2 block to block.
        SWAPA & the f/a TWU have filed similar grievances. Believe me…there will be more coming from other locals.

  14. At least Spirit has a call center. I wonder what’s gonna happen if Breeze has cancellations, since they don’t have one.

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Cranky Flier