At Spirit Airlines, passengers almost have to bring own wings

Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza defends his bare-essentials business model by saying one-third to one-half of his customers couldn't afford to fly if not for Spirit's cheap fares.


MIRAMAR, Fla. — At the headquarters for low-cost Spirit Airlines Inc., the word “cheap” is not an insult. It's a business philosophy championed by the chief executive, Ben Baldanza.

He demonstrates his frugal ways by switching on the lights to his office. Only a third of the bulbs are screwed into their fixtures. Then he pulls a vacuum out of his office closet, which he uses to help save on janitorial costs.

“We don't over-spend on that kind of stuff,” the 51-year-old executive says with a chuckle. “It's not part of our culture.”

Meet the top penny pincher at the nation's cheapest airline.

His tightfisted mind-set runs throughout the airline, right down to cramming in more seats per plane than most other carriers and charging passengers $3 for water and $10 to print out boarding passes. The airline even dumped its toll-free phone number to save a few bucks.

Spirit was the first U.S. airline to introduce a fee for carry-on bags and one of the first to install seats that don't adjust.

Don't expect an apology from Baldanza if your plane seat was cramped.

“Don't buy our low fare and complain that we don't have legroom,” he said.

Cost-cutting moves have made Spirit one of the nation's fastest-growing carriers, with one of the highest profit margins. But the tight seats and the long list of passenger fees also are a big reason that Spirit rated dead last among airlines in customer satisfaction, critics say.

“I had no idea that when booking I should have paid for a carry-on bag,” said Chris Ellis, an Occidental College student whose recent Spirit flight from Houston to Los Angeles was delayed for two hours. “Nor did I realize before I got on my flight that I would be expected to pay $3 for water. It was just ridiculous.”

Baldanza boldly defends the business model. He says one-third to one-half of his customers could not afford to fly without Spirit's cheap fares.

“As long as they keep fares low, there is room for a Greyhound-type airline in the industry,” said Ray Neidl, a New York-based airline analyst.

The Spirit business plan has been so successful that it is now poised to spread its brand of ultra-cheap service across the country.

In the first half of 2013, the airline reported a more than 20 percent increase in total passenger miles traveled. Spirit now has a fleet of 50 planes but has ordered enough new jets to expand by 15 to 20 percent a year for the next eight years.

“We manage the onboard like it's a little store,” he said.

In May, the U.S. Transportation Department received 80 complaints against Spirit for customer service and problems with baggage, refunds and reservations. Spirit had the third-highest number of complaints for the month, behind only the much larger United Airlines and American Airlines.

Social media sites are littered with angry posts about flying on Spirit.

Baldanza said he is bothered when flight delays anger passengers, but he doesn't fret about the gripes over fees.

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