Spirit Airlines putting on a sunnier face — but still holding on to fees

Without changing its low-cost, no-frills ways, Miramar-based Spirit Airlines is launching a campaign to help customers better understand how its business model works.

05/07/2014 6:00 AM

05/06/2014 10:39 PM

The low-cost airline that travelers love to hate is looking to drum up a little more love.

With a new campaign launching Wednesday, Miramar-based Spirit Airlines says it wants to “hug the haters” — and, maybe, give them a little education.

Spirit is rolling out an effort to better communicate its business model to travelers and help customers navigate the fees that can lead to air rage with a revamped website, employee training, a media blitz, and a new logo and branding.

“I think it’s a question of trying to have customers self-manage their own expectations,” said Robert Mann, president of airline industry analysis firm R.W. Mann & Co. He pointed out that other airlines, including Europe’s Ryanair in recent months, have launched similar efforts.

“The fact is there are a lot of disgruntled customers,” Mann said.

Wednesday’s rollout follows some unflattering headlines last month.

First, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund crunched some U.S. Department of Transportation numbers and declared Spirit the “most complained-about airline” in the country. A couple weeks later, a poll conducted by Airfarewatchdog showed that frequent fliers voted Spirit as the airline with the rudest flight attendants.

Despite the spate of bad press, Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza said the new campaign is actually more than a year in the making. The airline looked at customer feedback and surveys and picked out trends about what people liked and didn’t like.

“Some real strong themes came out,” Baldanza said.

One was that fliers loved low prices — the airline says its total fares are about 40 percent lower than prices on other carriers. And the other theme was that customers were frustrated with operational issues such as delays and the business model itself, which keeps base fares low but adds fees for everything from printing a boarding pass at the airport to stowing luggage in the overhead bin and getting a cup of water during a flight.

The airline has been working on the operational issues by hiring a new chief operating officer and introducing initiatives to improve on-time performance and customer service. But to address the frustration with fees, Spirit is not tweaking the way it charges customers.

“Our business model has just been too successful in many, many ways,” Baldanza said. “The model is clearly a more successful business model than many of them out there in the airline business. We don’t want to dilute that by saying, ‘Let’s do what everybody else does.’ Let’s help people understand.”

The end result, with the help of Kansas City advertising agency Barkley, is a series of branding efforts that include heavy use of yellow (“Sunny and positive to sort of lighten things up a bit,” Baldanza said.) and the tag line “Less Money, More Go.”

Spirit has also embraced a list of buzz words that it says are designed to help customers better save:

• Bare Fare, to emphasize that the base price doesn’t come with freebies.
• Frill Control, reminding customers they can choose the extras they want.
• Fit Fleet, highlighting the fleet of new, fuel-efficient planes.
• Plane Simple, describing the tightly packed and stripped-down cabin experience.

Cheeky new videos to appear on spirit.com/videos Wednesday seek to give an example of how to save money — by showing, separately, a young man and a young woman removing items of clothing and packing them in a “personal item” bag that would be considered a free carry-on.

The airline will roll out more information about the campaign on Wednesday at spirit.com/101 and passengers can expect to hear about the changes from employees and eventually see new signage and kiosks in airports.

“We want people to enjoy it, and we want people to kind of chuckle,” Baldanza said. “We’re trying to own exactly what we are and promote it.”

Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, said Spirit needs to make the flying experience fun while highlighting the money that passengers are saving by enduring tight quarters and multiple fees.

The online reputation management firm recently named Spirit as the airline with the worst reputation, but Schiffer said new efforts to better communicate with customers are a smart move.

“Yeah, it’s tight, yeah your knees are smashed, we don’t have water — but we still have spirit,” Schiffer suggested. “They can make it fun like Southwest.”

For Drew Backoff, a real-estate company marketing director who has been a reluctant Spirit passenger in the past, a new initiative won’t be enough to win him over.

“I don’t see what they could do to change my mind,” he said, except show that the total price — base fare plus fees for his flying preferences — would be significantly cheaper than another airline.

Although Backoff, a 32-year-old Boynton Beach resident, frequently receives airfare email alerts that show Spirit offers lower prices than competitors, he said that once he adds in the cost of a bag and choosing his seat, that difference narrows considerably.

And Backoff said he’d rather pay slightly more to fly his favorite airline, JetBlue, which has comfortable seats, TV and what he describes as a hassle-free booking experience.

“Just wrap it into the overall number and don’t show me the breakdown,” he said. “Make it a one-stop shop for me.”

But Baldanza said the airline isn’t trying to win over travelers who don’t mind paying a little more for extra comforts.

“Customers who really care about flying for the cheapest total price, I want that group of people to embrace us,” he said. “We want to be embraced by the true value-conscious airline traveler.”

George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog, said that’s the group that benefits the most from what Spirit offers.

“There are some people who would not be able to travel were it not for Spirit,” he said. “Times are tough, and Spirit is filling that niche for people who perhaps have to travel but don’t have a lot of money.”

Hobica added: “It really is a love-hate relationship.”

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