Spirit Gets a Taste of Its Own Medicine

A new class action lawsuit claims that Spirit duped travelers by labeling a fee to book tickets as a "passenger usage fee," rather than treating it as merely a part of the fare, according to a report in the Huffington Post.

The allegation that Spirit disguised the true nature of the fee is certainly true, but it's not clear that this misrepresentation actually resulted in monetary damages to consumers. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that airlines include all such mandatory fees plus all taxes in the fares they post online and in public advertisements. Airlines typically show a breakdown of fees and taxes in fine print—with varying degrees of detail—if travelers search for them. Regardless of how Spirit labeled their fares, the airline would have included any additional charges in the fares consumers actually paid, one way or another. So does it matter how the passenger usage fee was labeled?

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Spirit's position is somewhat ironic, in that it, along with other airlines, opposed the DOT's all-up fare display requirement on the basis that "customers need to know exactly what they're paying the government." When it comes to its own fees, however, Spirit chooses to split off part of the true fare into a separate —and vague—passenger usage fee rather than calling it what it really is: part of the fare.

Spirit, incidentally, isn't the only culprit here: Allegiant does much the same. And in their detailed cost breakdowns, many carriers still break a phony "fuel surcharge" out of their true fares and instead incorporate them in their laundry lists of extra fees.

Is Spirit's labeling of the fee misleading? Certainly. But did passengers actually suffer a financial loss as a result? Probably not: Spirit discloses the full cost of the ticket from the beginning, so if it chooses to break that total fare down into separate categories and give those categories fake names, it doesn't really matter. The final ticket cost stays the same.

Will the lawsuit prevail? Stay tuned.

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