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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Spirit Air: You Don’t Have to Turn on the Red Light

By Robert Gorell
October 24th, 2007

Baldaaaaanza...Spirit Airlines used to have great customer service. It was refreshing, actually. In the late 90′s, you could fly round-trip from, say, Detroit to New York for about $120 in a hand-me-down jet staffed with friendly people. It was a great, low-cost airline that was always able to surpass its customers (even lower) expectations.

But all that’s changed. Today, they have a brand-spanking-new fleet of mid-sized jets staffed with would-be friendly people who, bound and gagged with corporate red tape, can’t do much to help the customer even when they want to. Sure, the fares are lower than ever, but even with off-peak flights for as low as $1 (yes, really), it’s still not worth it. Why? Because, according to their current CEO, Ben Baldanza, the customer is always a cheapskate — and wrong.

Maybe it’s time to put a dimmer on those red light specials. They say that “a fish stinks from the head,” and if there’s ever been any proof, its this email Mr. Baldanza sent to a customer by accidentally hitting “reply to all” on his BlackBerry:

“Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

But, wait! There’s more!! Here’s their Director of Communications, Alison Russell, on a separate incident where blogger Alex Rudloff told readers, “Do Not Fly Spirit Airlines“:

“We wouldn’t respond to a blog post. This goes back to the larger question of the veracity of everything you read on Internet blogs. Our customer service is great.”

Oh, really?? More on my horror story with Spirit 2.0 in a moment. But first, let’s see what Google has to say about the company:

spirit_google.jpg

Here’s what Rudloff had to say in his blog post:

“So, instead of losing $5 on a customer who has every right to be angry, I’ll write this blog post and tell all my traveling buddies to add Spirit Airlines to their growing list of airlines to avoid,” Rudloff wrote on Aug. 4. “If Google works their magic like they usually do, at least one of the 4,931 daily searches for “Spirit Airlines” will turn up this result and save someone the headache (and hopefully end up costing Spirit Airlines $6 or more).”

Rudloff later told the Orlando Sentinel that:

“I think ultimately that customers have to speak out and they have to engage in word of mouth . . . That’s what the market responds to.”

Cool! What a great segue…

All Spirit, No Soul

Last May, I was flying from New York (LGA) to Detroit (DTW), as I often do for Memorial Day weekend — my favorite time to vacation in Detroit. I was running late. The car service was half an hour late, and traffic wasn’t moving, thanks to jackknifed truck on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. After paying top dollar to sit in a car for two hours, it was clear that I’d miss the 30-minutes-before-departure check-in deadline. So, I called Spirit Air’s 1-800 number, only to find there was no “customer service” option. So I waited on hold for, say, 20 minutes until I eventually hung up and called back, pressing a random — and incorrect — selection in hopes of reaching a human who could tell me what to do about the situation. When I finally reached a customer service rep, she told me to go to the airport and speak to the agents at the check-in counter — where I waited for (you guessed it) another 30 minutes.

After all of that, I got to the airport just before the 30-minute mark, but there was a line — a long one — and not enough agents to serve it. When I got to the front of the line, the agent told me that nothing could be done. If I wanted to book another flight, there was one leaving in an hour, but it would cost as much as my entire round trip. I kindly informed this person that I’d be willing to pay a charge — as is typical with other cheapskate airlines — to switch the ticket, but that buying a whole new one, just for a one-way leg of a round-trip flight was absurd. Then, when I asked for a number for customer service because I wanted to complain about the event — after all, I’d been a customer for 10 years — the guy hands me a card with the same freaking number I’d used earlier to get someone who couldn’t help me! When I brought that to the agent’s attention, he said, “I’m sorry, sir, there’s nothing I can do about it” — a common refrain at today’s Spirit Air.

So, Northwest Airlines to rescue (for once), and I was on my way to Detroit with a pounding headache and the world’s dumbest $200 missing from my bank account.

On the way back to New York, I was actually looking forward to flying Spirit. “If this isn’t a good trip after that nonsense,” I thought, “I’m so going to blog this.” Checking in with a smile, I handed the agent my ticket. “I’m sorry, Mr. Gorell, but we don’t have a seat with that name on it for this flight,” he said. I told him that was impossible and that I wasn’t imagining the ticket in my hand. Then it hit me: They’d canceled my entire round-trip ticket because they couldn’t serve me in time!

Turning beet-red, I calmly told the agent of my snag in New York. As I retold the story, one-by-one, all four agents at the desk came up to me, visibly upset by what I had to say. I let them know I was a blogger for a company that specializes in planning and optimizing the customer experience, and that I couldn’t believe the airline had tied their hands from doing anything of value for its “passengers.” Then a crazy thing happened. They actually encouraged me to blog about it! As it turned out, everyone at the counter seemed upset with the company’s new policies, too. I could tell they were biting their tongues, until…

“We used to be #1 in customer service,” said one agent. “Now we can’t help people.”

Her co-workers looked me in the eye and nodded. It was such an honest moment that I actually bought a one-way ticket from them… for the flight I’d already, supposedly, booked. (Oh, and since this was a last-minute one-way flight to NYC, you can be sure I got red flagged for security screening.)

For months, I let it slide. After speaking with the good people at Spirit in Detroit, I worried that blogging about the experience might put their jobs at risk. That is, until I saw Mack Collier’s post, which hipped me to the fact that a lot of other bloggers out there are also convinced that Spirit’s CEO — and not its employees — is what’s putting their jobs at risk by causing this fish to stink:

Alex Rudloff

BL Ochman’s WhatsNextBlog

Bold Interactive

CEO Smack

Darwin PR

Gadling

Jaunted

Josh Hallett

Lawrence Salberg

Perpetually Befuddled

Propeller

Reality Bites Back

Sarah and the Goon Squad

Search Engine Guide

Stuck on the Palmetto

The BOOT

Transmission

Upgrade: Travel Better

Sorry, Mr. Baldanza, but you can’t fly faster than word of mouth (or blog).

Add Your Comments

Comments (27)

  1. I’ve met a lot of great people who work for Spirit. Every single last one of them blames their new management and the policy changes that came with them. The original owners really did value the customers and it’s a shame that this is the direction Spirit has now chosen to take.

    Good work speaking out. It’s our role as consumers!

  2. I’ve flied spirit just once in my life, and was considering to try them again for an upcoming trip. I think I’ll pass now…one less customer through viral marketing!

  3. I’ve never flown Spirit but I had no knowledge of them other than being discount. From what I know now I’ll never fly them.

  4. I used to be a regular on Spirit; until we were forced to make an emergency landing (in full bend-over-hug-your-legs mode) due to an equipment issue on an older jet…with fire trucks waiting for us on the runway in West Palm Beach (on a flight bound for Ft. Lauderdale)…and to make matters worse very poor communication about the timing of our new bus ride (had to wait for what seemed like forever before the bus showed up) the rest of the way… my son and I vowed NEVER to fly Spirit again.

  5. [...] Robert Gorell writes about a crazy experience he had with Spirit Airlines. A must [...]

  6. Wow, that’s a crazy story, Robert. I’ve never flown Spirit – in fact, they’re very far off my radar up here in Canada – and now, I’ll make sure not to. Unless there are some big changes.

  7. The sad thing is that I don’t think they’d have to change a whole lot. If they had consistently low prices — instead of these costs-next-to-nothing-if-you-fly-when-you-don’t-want-to-and-forgo-customer-service deals — they’d be onto something. Honestly, I think they could even compete with Jet Blue and Southwest in their regional markets if they did that.

    For instance, Timothy’s story about the old plane in West Palm Beach probably wouldn’t happen now. Their fleet is entirely new as of this year. Besides, they have a good staff; people just seem demoralized. If they act quickly, they could make a few changes that stick and turn it around. But their management apparently doesn’t think it has a problem — THAT’S the problem!

    If you’re inside the bottle, you can’t read what’s on the label. It’s likely they’re just annoyed, and prefer to write this blogstorm off as an overreaction from pesky bloggers with nothing better to do. Well, guess what… I was a Spirit customer WAY before I ever started blogging.

    AND I ALMOST FORGOT TO MENTION THE BEST PART!! When I was at LaGuardia, trying to use my original ticket, they told me that their policy on (not) helping me get another flight had gone into effect AFTER I bought the ticket!!! Can you believe that load of crap? So, they can just make up rules, not notify paying customers, and suddenly have drastically different game plan than every other major airline. HA! That’s why “ridiculous” literally means “WORTHY of ridicule.”

    Anyway, this is a matter of perceived value; from the customer’s point of view, first, then from management’s. Flying on a new plane with a decent staff is worth more than what they’re charging with the deals. Otherwise, their fares are comparable to other carriers. They should still offer special rates at times (I love seeing those low fares), but that’s all they’ve become to people now. Jet Blue had a major PR disaster last year, and they’re still loved for being Jet Blue. The employees like working there, and it shows. Now the only reason to fly Spirit is to “save a penny,” as their CEO so eloquently put it.

    Sorry, but that’s not exactly a tempting value proposition if the other side of that is that I’m going to be treated like cattle. Go ahead and price your fares at $8 +tax, but treat me like I’m worth $8 ONCE and I’ll tell everyone who will listen. When I have someplace to go and you stop me from getting there, you’re not just messing with my money, you’re screwing with my life.

    I’ll bet you that if we looked at their P/L sheet, we’d see that Spirit rakes in money from last-minute purchases — a likely sign of repeat ticket buying (assuming they even track such things) — because of their newly stated customer service philosophy, i.e., that”customer service is not an option at these prices.”

    So, yeah, Spirit Air is really a thrill-seeking experience these days. It’s like Pricelining a Jet Blue flight in real time when you’re on the way to the airport, only you don’t get to see the results until you show up.

  8. [...] Spirit Robert Gorell at Grokdotcom on how bad Spirit Airlines customer service has [...]

  9. Great story and points well made – it will be a hand–out for my marketing students who last week looked at market orientation, and this week the impact of the Internet on brands. First–hand rants are so much better for getting the message across.

    On a side issue, in your reply you use the phrase ‘If you’re inside the bottle, you can’t read what’s on the label.’ I use it all the time, but can’t track its origin. I even registered the domain http://www.getoutsidethebottle.com to raise the issue – if you have any ideas I would love to hear.

  10. Now what? I ‘ve read this story with empathy to the author and the employees. I just left a similar (non-airline) story where I told the CSR at the counter that they lost me as a customer. She apologized for the umpteenth time and said see you later. I said, “No you won’t – that’s the point. I won’t be back.” She said, well maybe on the street some day. I stopped realizing that she wasn’t getting the idea she had the power of changing this by confronting the manager on the manager’s shortcomings.

    So, what is the CEO of this company to do – to rectify the blog comments and stop the bleeding? Resign? Dedicate himself to actually (key word actually) turning around service and employee attititude? How does a company actually overcome this negative – even if they start to try harder?

    On the company’s CEO’s side – when you fly so many times, as I am sure the author does, it is natural (statistical) that you’d encounter more problems than the average traveller. I fly frequently and – my luggage does get lost. Even at 90% accuracy, that’s one of 10 flights that something should go wrong. And my 10 flights come in very short periods of time.

    It’s natural order.

  11. I flew Spirit twice and gave them my frequent flier number. A few weeks ago, I received a statement in the mail with 0 miles flown. I called and after a loooong wait, I was told that the miles have already been posted. When I told the agent that my statement read 0 miles, he hung up on me. Go figure.

  12. No Support for SpiritAir.com website issues. After spending 4 hours on3 different computers, I have been unable to purchase tickets or log in using a ‘free spirit” customer number. 2 pc’s are Vista, one is XP. all are using IE 7. You can enter the flights and times, on the days desired along with the CC numbers. Once your done and hit the confirm booking button a “Server Error in ‘/’ Application” runtime error occurs. I make every security adjustment and even disables aall of the security, to not avail. You would think spirit air would care whan they can’t even sell a ticket. If I had any Stock in this Company I would dump it like yesterdays fish.
    Let see now: 1- no website support, 2- none functioning booking manager, 3- customer phone support uninformed and unable to apply web discounts.
    3 strikes and you are OUT, as far as I’m concerned.

  13. We were sitting on a Spirit plane, in the terminal, for FOUR hours, after the flight had ALREADY been delayed an hour, for them to change a tire. They would not let us off the plane and wouldn’t even give me a bottle of water for free.

  14. I purchased 3 tickets on Spirit Air for travel to Cancun. I purchased each of the tickets separately to get the special “internet” rate because it would not give me the rate if I purchased all three tickets at once. I immediately noticed that I had the wrong return date on my daughters ticket, so I called Spirit and had someone on the line within 4 minutes of my confirmation. I was told that there would be a 135.00 fee to change the return date by one day. I explained to the agent that I had hit the wrong date because I had booked the tickets on my laptop. No excuse would do and I had to pay the extra money because it was for my 12 year old daughter and she couldn’t fly back a day earlier by herself.

    I have attempted several times to get someone at Spirits Customer Servive which is non-existent. I asked the representative to put a supervisor on the line and he flat out refused and told me there was no need because I would get the same response! At this point I thought it was unbelieveable until I started sending emails to Baldanza (CEO) and Lancelot (VP) with spirit. I can see now, why the company is so bad.

    Don’t worry because people will not continue to put up with the bad customer service. It will be so fun to see what percentage of their customers are returning customers. I made a vow that I will NEVER fly Spirit again. If you check the better business bureau, they have hundreds of complaints that they have not resolved or gotten back with the complainant. They score a F according to the better business bureau.

    When the CEO made the mistake and hit reply all, Spirits Public Relations Rep stated that they will NOT apologize for what he said. Spirit Air does not feel they have anything to apologize for. Bottom line is this: Spirit will NEVER get another dollar from me after my upcoming trip and that is a PROMISE!!!

  15. Web site not accepting login. Been trying for several hours now 3/4/08 10:30 p.m. EST. No place to contact these folks by e-mail, and phones don’t know anything about 9 dollar fares. Think I got ripped off by Spirit Airlines paying for something you can’t get!

  16. Spirit air just sent me an interesting email.

  17. The ultra low cost carriers are feeling the pinch nowadays. To keep those costs low, one of the first things that goes out the window is customer service. The comments from the CEO seem to echo what I saw at SkyBus: they are the Wal-Mart of the skies. You want cheap seats? They’ve got ‘em. At least with Spirit they have a call center. Skybus decided that call centers were too expensive (If you screwed up your ticket – oh well, buy another one).

    Just don’t expect them to go overboard to retain customers. They know that when times are tough and you need a flight, that you’ll plunk down your cash even though you won’t be smiling about it.

    I’ve done customization consulting work for JetBlue, Spirit, and Skybus. They all look at the success that RyanAir is having in europe and want (or wanted in the case of SkyBus) to be the RyanAir of the US.

    It could be that they expect a new culture of take it and leave it airline travel. They provide the service, and that’s it – no frills – don’t expect to be treated like a king. I think SkyBus’ name said it all – it’s just a bus in the Sky – buy a bus ticket, or not.

  18. They are the absolute worst. I have been on hold for 40 minutes and nobody is picking up. I have been trying to call them for two days with no results. I either get busy signals or I get this garbage Caribbean music on a commercial loop that is making me insane.

    I flew them twice before and decided to go back to them because the airport they fly out of in Atlantic City is super convenient. Unfortunately, this time around, I booked 2 flights, got charged for 2 flights, but only got confirmation for one reservation. I just need to find out my other reservation confirmation and I cant get any assistance. I have emailed them, and now am calling….I will never fly them again. I hope that they go bankrupt, or are permanently grounded for some other reason.

    The worst.

  19. It keeps getting worse. Now they charge $3.00 for a can of soda, water or coffee.

    The latest news I just read is that they charge extra if you choose to select your seats ahead of time. If you do not pay, you will be seated randomly. If you are traveling with someone else you probably won’t get seated together.

    I hearby declare we are done flying Spirit Air until they fire their CEO and hire someone who actually cares about customer service.

  20. I agree that with all of the above comments, but I have gotten one penny tickets from Spirit to Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica so for now I’m going to continue flying with Spirit. For some people the horrible service isn’t worth the stress, but as a backpacking student it works for now.

  21. had to cancel reservations and had to rebook only to find out later it would cost me $80 per person (4 in my party) in their fine print it only states you pay $80 when rebooking. needless to say it cost me $320 to rebook and no matter who I talked to at 1-800 no one seemed to understand their policy in writing only states you must pay $80 when rebooking it says nothing about per ticket or person like other airlines state.

  22. I should have read all the blogs before signing up for their “great” savings club. Everytime i try to access their site i get an “error on page” message, puter locks up, and all open windows shut down. Whats up with their site? Don’t know but i know i will not be sending anymore annual dues to a n airline I WILL NOT TRAVEL WITH REGARDLESS OF THEIR ADVERTISED BUT NEVER REALIZED PRICES! Thanks for a place where i could air out my complaint

  23. I will never ever make reservations on this air line again ever. They have some of the worst customer service in the air line industry to date. Please, everyone, never book a flight with Spirit Air.

  24. i was searching for such article, and found your site… great man.. thanks a lot

  25. I’ve never flown Spirit but I had no knowledge of them other than being discount. From what I know now I’ll never fly them.

  26. I too used SPIRIT AIRLINES, for years, until this change. I was to take a flight for Thanksgiving home to Detroit from LAX. I arrived at the counter late . I was told by the employees of another airlines that the counter closed early and no one would return until the next day. I called the 1-800 number only to speak to someone in India, freaking India. They were rude and their English barely understandable. After, complaining and complaining I got n results. At the time I was in the $9 JOKE CLUB, which help none. As a result I got nothing, not a response from emails, nothing. I cancelled my membership to the $9 JOKE CLUB before the subscription period was over. Every chance I get I tell people about my experience and try to deter them from flying that airlines. They should be ashamed of themselves, I guess they don’t realize that the same people were their customers, people I know from Detroit used this carrier for flights into LAX, because of word of mouth they became known. They should go and serve the people of India where their customer service office is.

  27. Airlines are getting harder and harder to work with these days. I hadn’t even heard of Spirit before this, but thanks for the information.

    Jen

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