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Spirit: Worst Airline or Misunderstood Do-Gooder?

Given Spirit Airlines' track record of bad-taste ads and seemingly gleeful neglect of customer goodwill, you'd think the company's attitude toward negative attention was some variant of "Any publicity is good publicity."

It turns out that's true up to a point, but not beyond. That point was apparently reached and exceeded last week with a story in this space about the latest U.S. PIRG Education Fund report, which found that Spirit was the most complained-about U.S. airline. By far.

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That story crossed the line, eliciting a response from no less than Spirit's CEO, Ben Baldanza, included below in its entirety:

This past week, you published a story highlighting that Spirit Airlines has the highest DOT customer complaint rate among US airlines. As the CEO of Spirit Airlines, I certainly know that, as does every member of our team. We care about every one of our customers and work hard to deliver what they value most: safe, reliable transportation to where they want to go at a lower cost than other airlines. That's because we know that the #1 thing that makes our customers happy is getting where they want to go for less.

We've all learned that there's always "more to the story," and there is here too. First, the absolute number of complaints to the Department of Transportation is very small for all airlines, including Spirit. The industry averages around 1 or 2 complaints from every 100,000 customers, which is a great level of performance. Our complaint rate is higher: over the last five years we've averaged 8 complaints per 100,000 customers. That means 99,992 customers did not file a complaint, while 8 did. That is a very, very small number, but not one with which we are satisfied. For the last few months, complaints about Spirit have declined by over 30% to 5 per 100,000 customers. And, we're still not satisfied.

Offering our low fares requires doing some things that some people complain about—more seats on our planes with a little less legroom, no Wi-Fi or video screens, and no refunds without insurance; however, these reduce costs which gives our customers the lowest fares in the industry. Judging by the number of customers on our planes and repeat customer rate, most people like this tradeoff.

We know some customers are surprised by our unbundled, a la carte model and that creates some complaints. That's why we've committed Spirit to two key objectives: helping all of our customers learn how to fly on Spirit while keeping more money in their pockets AND sustaining our great safety record, while we continue to improve our operational reliability which is already competitive with other airlines.

There is one thing we won't do—add costs for things that most customers don't value as much as our low fares just to reduce the complaints of a few customers. Doing that would raise prices for everyone, compromising our commitment to what our customers have continuously told us they truly value—the lowest possible price.

We will continue to work in every way we can to help our customers get where they want to go, safely and reliably for less money. That lets our customers have more to spend on the things they really care about, like a nicer hotel, an extra day partying in Cabo, or even a new bike for a child. There's more to our story, and we will continue to share our approach to helping customers save money on airline travel transparently and consistently in everything we do.

Baldanza's goal here seems to be to change the focus of the conversation, from "Spirit doesn't care about its customers" to "Customers don't understand Spirit." Not a bad idea, in theory.

But if understanding Spirit means understanding Baldanza, those two conversations may be more alike than they are different. Baldanza is famous for his response, in 2007, to a customer complaint he inadvertently emailed to the complainant as well as to his own customer-service rep: "Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown before with us anyway and will be back when we save him a penny."

Reader Reality Check

Is Spirit a misunderstood do-gooder, or a callous nickel-and-dimer?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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