Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Spirit of Highway Robbery

Or would that be skyway robbery? That would be the case with Spirit Airlines.

I remember one of my very first plane experiences. We flew on TWA back to France when I was but a young tyke. A beautiful woman wearing a dark blue uniform with a pillbox hat leaned down to me, smiling and handed me a toy to play with once aboard the plane. Looking back it was a cheap affair, a thin vinyl sheet affixed to an 8”x10” piece of cardboard. Pieces of red plastic, shaped like letters, houses and animals adhered to that one white sheet of vinyl through the miracle of static electricity, completing the play set. I adored it.

I must have, to still remember it. I believe that that one experience flying set the standard for all subsequent flights I have been on. To date, only the Asian flights come close to the memory of that one luxurious flight, when we were served quality food and all the drink we wanted by gracious hostesses (back then, there was no such thing as a male flight attendant).

Korea Airlines exceeds that standard. Each passenger is greeted upon boarding and, within one hour of take-off, everyone is served a beverage and a snack. Prior to getting that snack attractively attired attendants make their way through the cabin, handing out small zippered pouches containing disposable house shoes, a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. Headphones, pillows and blankets were already on the seats, laid out prior to us passengers boarding. Within 2 hours of takeoff we are eating a quality meal, served on real dishes and with real (not plastic) cutlery. Wine, should one desire to partake, is included. Two hours prior to landing one is offered a choice of breakfast meals, either Asian (porridge) or Western (omelet). From the over-the-top service to the quality food, all is included in the price of the ticket. No extra fees for baggage, food, snacks or alcoholic beverages. 

Onboard entertainment is provided to each individual passenger, also free of charge. Each seat comes equipped with a remote control programmed to navigate the extensive menu of choices displayed on the seatback entertainment systems. I played Yahtzee while my neighboring seatmate flicked through movie previews.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what flying is all about, and what it should be: an occasion, an affair, a memorable event.

Spirit Airlines also provided a memorable event, totally unlike the Air Korea experience.

I’ve been given to understand that Spirit Airlines offers a $9 fare to certain destinations. I can see where that would be an incentive to book with them: that is a remarkably low fare. Just remember that old adage: you get what you pay for. 

Where does the skyway robbery come in?

With Spirit it starts early. $15 convenience fee for booking online. Of course you are welcome to address the agents directly at the ticketing counter, but that will cost you $5. Not only did I have to pay the $15 but also the $5 fee because I do not own a credit card and thus could not check in using their automated system.

What did I need a credit card for? Because I was checking my bag. They charge a $38 fee for that. And that is just if your bag weighs less than 40 Lbs. If it weighs 41 to 50Lbs that checked bag fee goes up to $45. In fact, their checked bag fee goes all the way to $100 if your bag is particularly overweight.

I am getting ahead of myself. I am reporting on things I didn’t find out till my second attempt to fly Spirit Airlines, out of Dallas. Maybe because that particular flight outraged me so. Well… that attempt to fly. More on that later.

The one Spirit flight I did participate in was no less disheartening. Their ‘fee card’ as I have dubbed it included fees for everything from a simple canned soda to taking advantage of extra legroom seats.

Being as I am rather long it would have been nice to have extra leg room. The seat I was assigned had so little legroom my knees dug into the seat in front of me. I am used to being too long for Chinese buses but, as I recall I do fit in seats on American conveyances. Not so on Spirit planes. By the time we touched ground my knees and shins had bruises from the seat in front of me. Not because that gentleman reclined into my space but because those planes are that crammed full of seats that there is literally no leg room for anyone.

How much does it cost to have a seat with extra legroom on a Spirit flight? It depends on how long the flight is. If it will take more than 2 hours to reach your destination, plan on spending $75 for a seat upgrade. That is a little pricey for my blood. Maybe, in order to ease the pain of squishing myself into one of these no-legroom seats I should have a drink. No, wait! At $6 for a simple glass of soda, not even a whole can but a glass, I think I’ll go thirsty. And hungry, too. Snacks are expensive aboard Spirit planes: anywhere from $2 for a small can of Pringles to $4 for a bag of Combos.  

Spirit Airlines charges you for just about everything they can. I didn’t try to use the bathroom in flight but wouldn’t have been surprised had they charged a fee for that, too. 

For all that I’d like to keep bashing on them, I do have to say that, on that one flight I was aboard, the attendants were friendly and courteous. Maybe they suffered at the idea that they served such a poor master.

I can’t say how the service was on the second Spirit flight I was due to catch out of Dallas because I didn’t make it on that flight, even though I arrived at the airport over an hour before that flight was due to leave.

I arrived at the airport at 0630, in plenty of time to make my 0740 flight. I attempted addressing their automated check-in machines and they recognized my reservation but, because I was checking a bag and didn’t have a credit card for them to debit $38 from I had to cancel my automated check-in and stand in line. I queued up at 6:37 precisely.  

There were only two attendants manning the counter, and the line coiled substantially. I waited 43 minutes for my turn. By the time I presented at the counter they had called the flight and I was not allowed to check in. For all intents and purposes, even though the plane was still on the ground and in fact going through its boarding process, I had missed my flight.

“What can you do to get me on another flight?” I asked.

“Next flight to Tampa is 2 days from now” replied the agent, not making eye contact.

“What can you do about reimbursing me?”

“Nothing. We don’t offer refunds at all.”

“What can you do about making this right?”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

And so it went. I asked for names and was told it was against company policy to divulge that information. I asked for a supervisor. She informed me she was the supervisor. I asked for a phone number. She stated the phone number is on their website (it is but it is very well hidden).  Any concession I asked her to make, she demurred.

Apparently Spirit was very happy to accept my buying a ticket and deliver no service whatsoever. However, I am relieved to tell you that my experience was nowhere near as bad as that of the family behind me.

Kendra, Chris and their children were also headed to Tampa. They got to Dallas via Spirit only to find out they were too late to make their connecting flight (also a Spirit flight). They were instructed to present at the counter, and were told the same things I was: no other flight till two days hence, no refund, no exchange, no customer service and no satisfaction. Their baggage was on its way to their final destination but they were stuck, unable to do anything about their missed flight. To add insult to injury, Spirit not only canceled the rest of their trip to Tampa but also their return trip tickets!

After the magic of Air Korea it was difficult for me to stomach such treatment. Fortunately I did not have to stomach it for long because, just a few counters over United Airlines had 7 agents waiting for business. For a mere $295 I was able to guarantee myself passage to Tampa that very day.

Chris and Kendra had no such luck. I wish there had been more I could do for them. It broke my heart to hear Chris tell his girls that he will make it up to them, and to hear him tell his lovely wife to call her father and inform him they would not be coming.

This is a long post, I’ll admit. There’s more to report, such as the passenger who presented at the United counter behind me, decrying Spirit vociferously. Or the Starbucks cashier who commented to her barrista whether there were still people running around the airport, angry about their Spirit experience. Or all the comments/complaints I read online about Spirit: flights overbooked, canceled due to maintenance issues, no refunds issued for canceled flights, and even the Veteran who was denied a refund due to a missed Spirit flight (his experience was similar to mine, Kendra and Chris’).

I bill myself as a travel writer and I do travel extensively. The Spirit experience was, without a doubt, the worst travel experience as far as customer service goes. I recommend that no one patronize this airline that practices the Spirit of skyway robbery with no shame whatsoever.    

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