Spirit Airlines’ latest problem, an unscheduled landing at Houston followed by a 10-hour delay, got big play on the Internet and raised some questions about whether the airline violated its passengers' rights. The unscheduled landing of the Los Angeles-Ft. Lauderdale flight, said a Spirit spokesperson, was due to the need to remove an unruly passenger. That’s what airlines are supposed to do. Reports add that the passengers spent an hour on the tarmac and another 10 hours in the terminal “without food.” The short answer is that the airline didn’t violate anything other than the principles of good customer service.
The delay, of itself, did not violate any obligation. Spirit’s contract of carriage, along with those of other airlines, explicitly states that the schedule and adherence to that schedule are not part of the contract.
The 10-hour ground delay did not violate the Department of Transportation’s recent passenger-protection rules. Those rules refer strictly to tarmac delays, not total delays, and Spirit’s one-hour tarmac delay fell well within the Department’s three-hour limit.
When passengers reported “no food,” presumably they meant that Spirit didn’t cover any food expenses. You can buy plenty of food at Houston's airport, but Spirit’s contract does not obligate it to pay. Although some contracts obligate an airline to provide meals and other amenities to travelers during extended delays, Spirit’s says only that it “may provide limited amenities.”
The extended delay was apparently caused by Spirit’s decision to fly in a substitute airplane. Nothing in the reports indicated why Spirit couldn’t simply reboard the original plane, but finding a substitute plane and crew to fly from Spirit’s Ft. Lauderdale base could easily take 10 hours. And unlike a majority of other domestic airlines, Spirit’s contract does not cover providing alternate transportation on another line.
Reports also claim that Spirit failed to let passengers know what was happening and instead kept posting new departure times every hour or so. Here, Spirit did violate its rather vague commitment to “make every attempt to provide our customers with accurate, up-to-date information about their travel itinerary.”
The Spirit spokesperson indicated that it would give customers on that flight a complete refund of the ticket price. Given the exclusions in Spirit’s contract, that’s about as much as they can reasonably expect.