Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Trip Report: Spirit Airlines (ATL to MSY)

A Trip Report: Spirit Airlines, ATL to MSY (October 2016)
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Spirit Airlines has intrigued me for a while.  For a long period, they were un-apologetically an ultra-low-cost carrier and put low base fares over everything.  This method upsets many customers/passengers who were not used to this model and fare.  With a new CEO, Spirit Airlines has a new direction and that includes focusing more on customer service; they are trying to improve all the negative comments they face.  I have flown ultra-low-cost carriers in other countries (mainly Europe) but I wanted to experience ultra LCC flying here in the U.S. so decided to try out Spirit Airlines.

I have been trying to fly Spirit for a while, but costs prevented me from booking a flight.  Spirit is an ultra LCC which means that they charge you for everything.  The fare that you pay includes a seat plus a small personal carryon that can fit underneath your seat.  A bigger carryon to store above, that’s a charge; a checked baggage, that’s a charge; preselecting your seat, that’s a charge; checking in at the airport, that’s a charge; anything on board, that’s a charge – basically they charge for anything and everything they can and the charges are not cheap.  It costs $35 to add a carryon baggage while it costs $30 to include a checked baggage.  In searching for a flight with Spirit, I found that though the base fare was inexpensive once I added some of the extras – including carryon and taxes – the total fare was almost always more expensive than the ‘legacy carriers’.  Essentially, I was going to pay more to get less and this did not seem like a good option so I never flew with Spirit.

Recently, Spirit began increasing their services out of New Orleans International Airport and has added services to both Los Angeles and Atlanta.  On the New Orleans to Los Angeles sector, they are competing with American, United, Delta, and Southwest; while on the New Orleans to Atlanta they are competing with Delta and Southwest (another LCC, Frontier, used to serve this market but recently left). 

I was flying with Spirit on the Atlanta to New Orleans sector.  At the time of my search, both Southwest and Delta’s fare were in the $170’s while Spirit was $34 base fare one-way.  Since I was only going for the weekend, I only needed a small carryon so I would not have to pay for the additional fees Spirit adds on.  The small carryon was included in the base price so my total fare would be $34 on Spirit compared to $170 on Southwest/Delta.   It seemed like a good deal at the time, until later in the week when Southwest had a sale and their fare on this sector dropped to $59 one-way.  I continued with m Spirit flight just to check them out.

Overall, my Spirit flight was better than I had expected.  Given all the conversation regarding the low-cost model, I was a bit hesitant regarding my flight and the experience I was going to have.   Booking a flight on Spirit is a bit of a task, because you go through a lot of steps.  After you select your flight, you go through to determine if you want to add a bag, a carryon, select your seat, rent a car, book a hotel, or purchase insurance.  It’s a process but through this Spirit lets you know what is, and mostly not offered in the fare.  At the end, the fare is broken down into base fare, taxes, and added services.

24-hrs prior to my flight, I received two emails from Spirit.  The first email was regarding checked baggage and carryon, and was a reminder of the price increase at the airport/gate for these services.  The second email reminded me to check-in.  Spirit does not have a mobile app and does not provide mobile boarding passes.  Spirit’s main website is mobile friendly so I was able to check-in online and a seat was assigned to me upon check-in.  I did not have access to a printer so I had to use the kiosk at the airport to print my boarding pass (if you print it at a kiosk, its free; if an agent prints it for you then there is a charge).  My fare included a carry-on, one that could fit underneath your seat. 

At the time of booking and flight, Spirit did not participate in TSA precheck (update: there was an announcement that Spirit will be participating in the program, but a start date was not announced).  Because I needed to print my boarding pass and wait in the long security line, I got to the airport about 1.5hr prior to my flight.  There was no one at the Spirit desk but when I got to the gate, the passengers were already there waiting to board.   Prior to the boarding announcement, Spirit again made announcements regarding additional fees for oversize carry-ons.  Boarding commenced and we boarded by group.  It was very quick and efficient boarding and all the passengers were on-board about 10 minutes prior to departure.  The plane closed the door 3 minutes early and we taxied and took off.

Spirit operates an all-Airbus fleet and my sector was operated by an Airbus A319 in a 3-3 layout. At the front are the ‘big seats’ which are Spirit’s version of business class, followed by extra legroom seats, and then the regular seats.  I was seated in the regular seat and overall the seats were decently comfortable and the seat pitch was a bit tight but not too bad.  I have flown on other LCC which have had less padding and a tighter seat pitch so compared to that these were decent.  I am a tall person – about 6’1 – and the seat pitch was a bit tight if you sat upright; however the seats were in a pre-recline so if you put your feet underneath your seat then the seat pitch was decent.  The seats themselves had no PTV and only had a safety card and the buy on-board menu in front of it.  Given the short flight duration of 1hr 10 minutes, both the seat pitch and comfortability were fine with me. 

Once we reached cruising altitude, the service sector commenced.  Spirit does not provide anything for free and has a buy on-board model.  In fact, a service cart was not pushed out – the attendants came down the aisle with the buy on-board menu and if anybody wanted anything, they would order directly from the attendant who would then bring it to them directly.  This is the first time I have seen where a service cart was not rolled out on a flight.   Spirit also provides no entertainment on board, and given the short duration it was fine.  As we were starting our decent into New Orleans, the attendants came by offering the airline credit card and bonus miles for those who signed up.  It was an uneventful flight and we landed in New Orleans 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

In conclusion, it was a decent flight with Spirit and similar to what I have experienced with Frontier; a low-cost carrier which charges you for everything and provides a basic, decent seat.  They are average for short-haul, but not good for medium-haul.  Though the base price is low, once you add all the extras – which some of the competitors on this sector include – then the fare increases to a non-competitive rate.  This combined with the limited flight options does not entice me to fly Spirit again.  I flew Spirit to experience ultra-LCC in America, but next time I will just wait for the Southwest sale.

In comparing Spirit versus Southwest:

Spirit Airlines (all fees based upon check-in; fees increase at airport)
Southwest Airlines
Base Fare
Either pay to pre-select your seat - $14 or $9 depending on leg room; or receive a seat assignment at check-in for free
Received a boarding group at check-in and choose your own seats upon boarding      

small, personal item complimentary – needs to fit underneath your seat
Additional carryon at a cost ($35)  
Small personal item plus a hand carry are complimentary
Checked baggage
$30 for the 1st bag
2 free bags included
Flight Options
Only one flight option for this sector
Multiple flight options available throughout the day
Flight Changes
Charges apply ($90) to any changes
No change fee, you pay the difference in fare.  If the fare is lower, then a credit is issued
Boarding Pass
$0 if printed at home or at the airport kiosk; $10 if printed by an agent
No mobile passes are available
$0 if printed at home, via mobile, or by an agent
No on-board entertainment – no TV and no magazines,
Free live-tv on wifi enabled planes, accessible through a free Southwest App.  Airline magazines are also available.
Snacks & Drinks
Available for purchase
Free drinks and small snacks are complimentary.  No food is available on any flight
Seat Comfort
Spirit operates an all-Airbus fleet.  Some of their seat pitches are very narrow – 28in – while others are standard at 30-30
Southwest operates an all-Boeing fleet.  Their older 737s have a tighter seat pitch while the newer planes are more comfortable    
Customer Service
Spirit is not known for their customer service, and originally was proud of that.  Lately, they have been trying to improve their image and service
Southwest has excellent customer service and this is something they are known for and take pride in.

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