Airlines, in general, earn spectacularly low ratings for customer satisfaction. In one survey a few years back, airlines rated even below the IRS, and their miserable levels of consumer satisfaction would cause just about any other kind of company to panic.
But even though the general average is low enough already, two airlines—Spirit in the U.S. and Ryanair in Europe—stand out as the ones you love to hate. Both lines have pioneered and extended the business model of charging extra for everything, and when you couple that with bad customer service, you have a real bottom-feeder.
Low fares—both lines proudly claim their fares are the lowest of the low.
What's Not to Like?
Although you're probably more interested in Spirit—and certainly more likely to fly it—than Ryanair, we should start with an examination of the Irish line, since it was the first "ultra-low-fare line." Its basic formula is simple: Cram as many seats as possible into the plane, charge the lowest fares possible, and charge travelers extra for everything beyond the "butt in the seat."
- Ryanair's Boeing 737 seats are crammed in at a tighter-than-normal pitch, although Ryanair claims to offer more equivalent legroom because seats do not recline.
- In many key locations, Ryanair uses airports that are quite remote from the nominal destination: Hahn for Frankfurt (75 miles away), Bergamo for Milan, Charleroi for Brussels, Girona for Barcelona, Lubeck for Hamburg, and others. Beyond just the distance, ground transport to/from these remote airports is typically much less convenient than at each city's main airport.
- Ryanair routinely posts low-ball fares and subsequently adds extras that are mandatory, or almost-mandatory, and go directly to the airline, not any third parties or governments. Among them: a fee for online check-in, an "administration fee" for the booking process, and a fee for airport services that, at some airports, actually covers services the airport provides to Ryanair under contract. On a sample booking, a flight with a nominal price of €29.99 wound up costing €69.47 before any optional extras.
- Ryanair charges extra for early boarding, checked baggage, doing anything in person at the airport that could otherwise be done online, and even an extra euro for an email confirming the reservation.
Ryanair perversely enjoys and cultivates its reputation for squeezing the last euro out of its travelers and the hard-nosed customer service that goes with it. Its CEO, Michael O'Leary, regularly floats trial balloons about ever more fanciful ways to cut costs and add charges—he is most famous for suggesting pay lavatories and more recently stand-up "seating." As a result of all of this, Ryanair routinely earns bottom marks with travelers. It's the only line in the developed world with a lowly two stars in the Skytrax ratings.
Obviously, however, European customers don't mind Ryanair's lousy product and service as long as they can buy cheap tickets: They've made it Europe's largest low-fare line. It serves 142 European and Mediterranean destinations, with hubs in 41 cities from Shannon and Dublin to Stockholm to Rome, and is now the world's number one airline in numbers of international passengers carried.
All you really need to know about Spirit Airlines is encapsulated in the email message its CEO, Ben Baldanza, sent as a response to an underling about a complaint filed by an unhappy customer. It said: "Please respond, [underling's name], but we owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny." This message became an instant industry legend when Mr. Baldanza inadvertently hit the "reply to all" button instead of the "reply to sender" button on his email program.
Spirit admittedly took Ryanair as one of its models—maybe its most important model. And it has replicated many of Ryanair's trademark excesses. It even innovated a bit, becoming the first line to propose a charge for carry-on baggage in the overhead bins. It, too, flies planes with seats that do not recline—seats on its newest planes are even a bit tighter than Ryanair's, at a knee-crunching 28 inches. Like Ryanair, it charges extra for just about everything—seat assignments, checked baggage, you name it.
Spirit has emulated Ryanair in another area: A "passenger usage fee," buried in the fine print, for buying a ticket anywhere but at an airport counter—and that means an extra fee for booking online. As with Allegiant, the other line that does this, it's an "almost mandatory" fee that is very difficult, expensive, or time-consuming for almost everyone to avoid.
Spirit has also been guilty, in my mind, of crossing the line on Department of Transportation's rule on fare advertising: In its recent supposed $2 "sale" fares, the true fare wasn't $2 at all, it was $2 plus a "fuel pass-through" that ran at least $20 and usually more.
As you might expect, Spirit's hard-nosed policies on fees and customer service generally earn it lots of space in various complaint venues:
- Spirit is not large enough to be covered in the Department of Transportation's standard measure of complaints per 100,000 passengers. However, its raw number of complaints for the month of April—35—is higher than for any other low-fare line, even Southwest (23) and others that are much larger.
- Epinions composite ratings rank Spirit at two-and-a-half stars, below any large domestic line currently flying.
- Of the 300 most resent Spirit postings on My3Cents, only six were complimentary—as far as I can tell, this is by far the worst proportion of any domestic airline.
- Spirit showed 73 postings on RipoffReport, compared with 4 for Allegiant, 11 for JetBlue, and 31 for Southwest.
- On Viewpoints, 59 percent of the ratings were one-star, the lowest option available, and Spirit showed an overall 75 percent "thumbs down" score. By contrast, JetBlue shows 59 percent at five-star, the top rating, and 89 percent thumbs up; Allegiant is a composite 2.25 stars, and Southwest rates 4.19 stars.
Still, Spirit has some voluble supporters. They basically say, "We don't expect service; we expect cheap tickets—and that's what we get." Maybe the line's official motto should be, "You get what you pay for." And there are worse mantras than that.