After delays, Spirit Airlines again in the spotlight

10/24/2013 6:25 AM

10/24/2013 10:27 PM

After hundreds of passengers spent uncomfortable hours waiting for delayed Spirit Airlines flights Thursday, a familiar chorus rose : “I will never fly them again.”

Delays piled up after the airline pulled planes from service for safety checks, with some passengers reporting waits of up to eight hours.

“It has been a disaster,” passenger Rafael Hernandez told Miami Herald news partner CBS 4. Hernandez, who was trying to make it home to Chicago, told the news station authorities escorted him from the terminal after he lost his temper.

“I was so frustrated. I’m never ever going to fly Spirit again,” he said. “If they don’t know how to run a business, everything is going to collapse.”

But based on history and business performance, airline experts say the Miramar-based carrier doesn’t have much to worry about.

“When I hear people say, ‘I’m never gonna fly Spirit again,’ I roll my eyes,” said Hunter Keay, senior airline analyst at Wolfe Research. “The vast majority of them will. They might not be happy about it, but they will.”

The reason, he and other observers say, is the unmistakable allure of low fares — even though they come without frills or even standard amenities that many air travelers take for granted. Customer gripes often center on the fees that Spirit has helped make famous, including charges to print a boarding pass at the airport or carry on a bag unless it fits under a seat.

But Thursday, the focus was on massive delays that resulted when the airline pulled planes out of service Wednesday night for voluntary inspections following an engine failure last week on an aircraft. The flight was heading from Dallas to Atlanta on Oct. 15 when passengers said they heard an explosion and saw flames on the side of the plane. Smoke filled the cabin, and the plane returned to Dallas safely.

While the engine checks were supposed to take about 45 minutes per plane, some delays were “significant,” the airline said.

Spirit Airlines spokeswoman Misty Pinson said the last checks were completed by 5 p.m. Thursday, though most were done by the middle of the day.

“We apologize for these delays,” she said in an email. “As always, the safety of our customers is our number one priority.”

Still, several Spirit flights to and from Fort Lauderdale were running late Thursday night as the airline worked to get back on schedule. One flight from New York City that was originally supposed to land at 10:50 p.m. was delayed until 2:30 a.m.; a flight scheduled to leave for Niagara Falls at 10:30 p.m. had its departure time pushed to 1:30 a.m.

“I can assure our folks are doing everything possible to get our customers where they need to go as quickly as possible,” Pinson said.

Customers who had long delays received vouchers for future flights, Pinson said. Many passengers swore to television crews they would never put them to use, and past unhappy customers voiced frustration with the airline on social media.

But Miami resident Amneryss Bird, 56, spoke up in Spirit’s defense. Bird said she is a fan and has only experienced a small delay over the several years she has used the airline. She said she travels to California and Central America and has learned to pack light to avoid luggage fees.

“It is super cheap,” said Bird. “I can’t complain with Spirit Airlines. If they weren’t around, I wouldn’t be traveling as much.”

And that’s the key to their success, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com

“They provide an alternative for people who don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “And they are making money and they are growing.”

In September, Spirit’s traffic — or revenue passenger miles — increased nearly 29 percent year-over-year; capacity grew by almost 25 percent. In July, the company reported adjusted profits of almost $46 million for the second quarter, a nearly 30 percent increase.

During the second quarter of the year alone, Spirit added more than a dozen new routes, concentrating on airports dominated by larger competitors such as Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. The airline has about 250 daily flights to more than 50 destinations in the United States, Latin America and Caribbean. It is the second-busiest carrier at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after JetBlue.

“It’s unbelievable, driving tremendous growth,” said Stuart Klaskin, CEO and principal at airline investment and consulting firm Jetstream Aviation Capital.

The problem, Klaskin said, is the “so-called customer service.”

“They’re the Walmart of the skies,” he said. “Nobody goes to Walmart and expects the service standards that they receive from Neiman Marcus.”

Keay, of Wolfe Research, said he believes many people “would be surprised at how not unsatisfied customers of Spirit are” because of the money they save.

He said customers can expect safety with Spirit — even if they don’t get much else.

“You’re late, you’re late,” he said. “You’ll get there and you’ll save a lot of money on the way.”

After negative experiences with the airline in the past, real estate company marketing director Drew Backoff swore he’d never fly Spirit again. But it was the only option for a recent trip to Atlantic City aside from flying to New York or Philadelphia and driving. So the 32-year-old Boynton Beach resident reluctantly gave Spirit another try.

He was delayed leaving New Jersey and arrived in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday night to find “literally people camped out, pillows on the ground, sleeping with blankets.”

Compared to those passengers, Backoff’s troubles were minor, but he said his experience was still less than ideal.

“I knew what I was in for and still I was unpleasantly surprised at the way it all panned out,” he said. “It blows my mind how they operate and how they stay in business.”

Miami Herald Public Insight analyst Stefania Ferro contributed to this story, which was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.

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