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Spirit Really Wants You to Like its Carry-On Fees

Spirit Airlines really, really, really wants you to like it's new carry-on fee. To that end, the airline just posted an open letter to its customers. Let's give it a read, shall we?

To our valued customers,

We have all seen how carry-on baggage has gotten out of control.  Longer security lines and boarding process, injuries due to overcrowded overhead bins, delayed flights and passenger frustration [have] become commonplace.

At Spirit, we are always looking for new ways to save you money and improve the customer experience.  We recently announced our latest innovation, which is designed to relieve the carry-on crisis, saving you time and money.

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(I'm just going to butt in here to point highlight this line: "At Spirit, we are always looking for new ways to save you money." Their plan to do this, apparently, is by charging you new fees. Let that sink in for a minute.)

Our solution to the carry-on crisis:

  1. Lowered fares
  2. Lower checked bag fees
  3. Give everyone a free personal item allowance
  4. Allow customers to carry on an additional bag for a fee and give them priority boarding so they have time and space to stow their extra bag

Everyone Wins!

  1. We expect total prices to be lower
  2. Security lines will move faster
  3. The boarding process will be smoother
  4. Deplaning will be faster
  5. Passenger and employee safety is improved with [fewer] over-stuffed bins

The letter goes on to tout Spirit's new Penny Plus fares, which are actually a good idea: 1-cent fares, plus fuel and taxes (and, of course, fees), with each component separated out. The catch they're only available to Spirit's $9 Fare Club members, and only on nonstop routes.

Spirit also points out that the airline has lowered checked bag fees for $9 Fare Club members, but it hasn't done the same for non-members, for whom baggage fees actually went up a little. Oh, and did I mention there's a video of Spirit's CEO in an overhead compartment?

Whenever you see a company going to desperate lengths to convince people that something quite apparently bad is actually good, it's a safe bet that your eyes don't deceive you: It's bad. Spirit has been pushing so hard to sell its new fees as a good thing that I decided to see how its prices would actually add up if I were traveling. I priced three flights from Boston (my home airport) on Spirit, JetBlue, Delta, and, in one case, Southwest. I assumed one carry-on and one checked bag, and used Spirit's non-$9 Fare Club fares and fees, since I'm not a member. Fares include taxes and government fees.

Boston-Ft. Lauderdale, one-way, Aug 4:

  • Spirit: $125.93 fare + $30 carry-on fee + $25 checked bag fee = $180.93
  • JetBlue: $124.40 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $0 checked bag fee = $124.40
  • Southwest: $106.40 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $0 checked bag fee = $106.40
  • Delta: $125.90 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $23 checked bag fee (paid online) = $150.90

Boston-Nassau, round-trip, Aug. 11 to Aug. 18

  • Spirit: $326.26 fare + $60 carry-on fee + $50 checked bag fee = $436.26
  • JetBlue: $375.20 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $0 checked bag fee = $375.20
  • Delta: $388.20 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $50 checked bag fee = $438.20

Boston-Cancun, round-trip, Aug. 17 to Aug. 25

  • Spirit: $365.51 fare + $60 carry-on fee + $50 checked bag fee = $475.51
  • JetBlue: $452.33 + $0 carry-on fee + $0 checked bag fee = $452.33
  • Delta: $421.33 fare + $0 carry-on fee + $50 checked bag fee = $471.33

Does this prove that Spirit is bending the truth when it says "we expect total prices to be lower"?

Not exactly. There are times when Spirit, even with the carry-on fee, will be cheaper, especially for travelers who can snag a Penny Plus fare, or who are flying the airlines' shorter, cheaper routes. There are also times, as I found, when Spirit will be more expensive than your other options. No airline is always the cheapest, or always the most expensive. That's why you compare fares and fees, and consider factors like quality of service, amenities, and so forth.

But to paraphrase my colleague Ed Perkins, Spirit's "Everyone wins!" message is pure rubbish. Spirit's goal here is to speed up operations, rake in revenue, and do so in a way that allows it to continue advertising low fares. Period. Do consumers get some ancillary benefit in the form of empty overheads and reduced chaos in the center aisle? Sure. But it's coming out of their wallet. And remember, those overheads are full and those aisles are crowded only because Spirit and just about every other airline charges for checked bags.

No matter what Spirit says, I simply can't accept the airline's depiction of a $20-$45 fee as some sort of crusade on behalf of the beleaguered consumer. So I'm calling it like I see it:  This is business, not personal.

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