Bags, Lies, and Carry-on Fees: Spirit Reaches New Low

Ed Perkins on Travel
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 15, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, baggage, Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins on Travel, Spirit, taxes and fees.

Spirit Airlines, never known for a consumer-friendly posture, just scored two new lows. It announced an impending charge for carry-on baggage, and it trumpeted some new—and false—one-cent fares that, at least to me, flout Department of Transportation fare advertising rules.

Actually, most of the public press I've seen has made Spirit's carry-on baggage charge seem worse than it really is ... but only a little worse. The airline doesn't plan to charge for all carry-on bags; just those that don't fit under the seat in front of you. Instead, the charge applies only to larger bags that must go into an overhead bin. Spirit says the fee will not apply to some personal items such as cameras, purses, tote bags, and such, but they, too, must be small enough to fit under a seat. And those maximum under-seat dimensions are pretty tight: 16-by-14-by-12 inches.

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Starting August 1, if you want to stow a bag overhead, the base charge when you buy in advance or at a check-in counter will be $30 on all flights, or $45 if you don't buy until you're at your departure gate (gate payment by credit card only, no cash). Members of the line's "$9 Fare Club" pay $20 in advance. Of course, even if you pay, the line limits you to one bag. The carry-on fee adds another perk: boarding ahead of those who don't pay for a carry-on bag. Fees for the first and second checked bag remain at $25 for domestic flights or $30 for an international flight; the gate check fee remains $45, with no second bag accepted. "$9 Fare Club" members get a $10 discount when they pay in advance.

Spirit cites the usual reasons: Travelers pay for only what they use, fewer carry-on bags will speed up the boarding process and prevent overuse of the overhead bins, and "improve the overall customer experience." Yeah, right.

People looking at Spirit's new fee also ask the obvious question: Will other lines decide to do the same? As I frequently note, "In the airline business, nothing succeeds faster than a bad idea."

Although I think the carry-on fee is, in fact, a bad idea, it isn't the worst of Spirit's new ideas. What I find really annoying is the line's promotion of "Penny Plus" fares for members of its "$9 Fare Club." You can't really fly for 1 cent, of course; the gimmick is that you pay 1 cent plus a "fuel pass through" charge ranging from a bit over $12 for short flights to $54 for longer flights.

The release posts a table showing the "ticket" price for some sample flights as "1 cent," to which the airline adds its fees. That claim that the "ticket price" is actually one cent is a flat-out lie. The ticket price is really one cent plus the $12 to $54 phony fuel allocation plus a "passenger usage fee" of $8, hidden in the fine print, that also goes right into the line's pocket—plus, of course, the usual government taxes and fees. To me, the claim that the "ticket price" is one cent totally violates DOT rules about honest airfare advertising. I would hope that DOT will take action on this one, but its sorry refusal to prohibit a similar deception by Allegiant indicates something less than full enthusiasm for honest fare advertising.

Even at the true price, a Spirit flight may sometimes be a good deal. But can you trust an airline that lies this much?

Have you ever flown with Spirit and do you think it's worth putting up with their antics? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

 
 
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