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Spirit vs. Ryanair: Who’s the Ugliest Airline of Them All?

Every airline has its haters. Maybe you’re still holding a grudge against Delta for losing your bag back in 2003, or you can’t get over that time Aeroflot literally stranded you in Siberia. In fact, the whole airline industry rated lower than the IRS in a recent U.S. customer satisfaction survey.

But in the airline hall of shame, a couple of carriers truly stand apart. Ultra-discounters Spirit Airlines (based in Florida) and Ryanair (which flies across Europe) make headlines as often for their bad behavior as for their eye-poppingly low fares. From tasteless ad campaigns to an endless parade of fees, these airlines seem to be trying to outdo each other in a race to the bottom — with no end in sight. Who’s the worst offender? We’ll let you decide.

Egregious Fees

Spirit: The airline’s most recent money-grubbing venture is a $5 fee to print your boarding pass at the airport. (Seriously? How much does a piece of paper and a little ink cost?) And it charges not only for checked bags but for carry-ons as well. Plan on paying $18 – $43 for a first checked bag, $25 – $50 for a second and $20 – $45 for a carry-on, depending on where you’re going, how you pay for the bag (online or at the airport) and whether you’re a member of the $9 Fare Club.

Ryanair: The Irish airline imposes so many extra charges that its home page features a handy “Fees” link at the top, right between “Contact Us” and “General Conditions.” The link takes you to a lengthy chart detailing such costs as an Infant Fee (20 GBP each way), a labyrinthine system of checked baggage fees (15 – 45 GBP depending on the weight of your bag and whether you’re flying peak or off-peak) and an Administrative Fee of 6 GBP that’s charged to every booking except those paid for with a MasterCard prepaid debit card. The airline has even considered charging to use onboard toilets.

Biggest Offender: Spirit by a nose. (At least until Ryanair starts making us pay to pee.)

Offensive Ads

Spirit: Any press is good press, right? Spirit sure thinks so. Over the years its promotions have frequently been decried in the media as tasteless or downright offensive. “We’re no Virgin! We’ve been cheap and easy for years,” proclaimed one 2009 fare sale (competing with Virgin America). More recently, the airline poked fun at the demise of the Schwarzenegger-Shriver marriage with “fares so low, you can take the whole family! Including the half-brother you just met.”

Ryanair: Ryanair has done its share of cheeky advertising, bringing it into frequent conflict with the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The watchdog agency banned a 2008 offering a picture of a sexy schoolgirl offering the “hottest back to school fares,” saying that it “appeared to link teenage girls with sexually provocative behaviour and was irresponsible and likely to cause serious or widespread offence.” Ya think?

Biggest Offender: Spirit.

Bare-Bones Flights

Spirit: Forget complimentary water or peanuts — you’ll have to pay for every snack or beverage aboard a Spirit flight. And you’d better bring your own entertainment as well. Spirit offers no Internet, movies, TV or music.

Ryanair: Like Spirit, Ryanair charges for beverages and snacks, and offers no in-flight entertainment.

Biggest Offender: Tie.

Crummy Customer Service

Spirit: IndependentTraveler.com reader Richard Rosichan was a loyal frequent flier on Spirit until last year, when a poorly handled flight cancellation had him taking the airline to small claims court. Rosichan isn’t alone in his displeasure: Spirit is rated only 3.3 out of 10 on airline review site AirlineQuality.com.

Ryanair: Ryanair scores even lower on AirlineQuality.com — 2.4 out of 10, based on nearly 1,000 reviews. Disenchanted fliers can hook up with other haters at Facebook.com/ryanairsux, which currently has nearly 4,000 followers.

Biggest Offender: Ryanair.

Outrageous Comments by Senior Management

Spirit: CEO Ben Baldanza made waves in 2007 when he hit “reply all” instead of “reply” on a customer service complaint that had been forwarded to him, inadvertently sending the following message to both his own employees and the offended passenger: “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 us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.” Oops!

Ryanair: Head honcho Michael O’Leary is famous for speaking his mind, describing himself in 2006 as “just an obnoxious little bollocks” (it’s hard to disagree). He’s unapologetic about Ryanair’s business plan — “our strategy is like Walmart: we pile it high and sell it cheap” — and ruthless toward those he sees as foes, calling British Airways “overcharging rapists” and offering the following charming perspective on travel agents: “Take [them] out and shoot them. What have they done for passengers over the years?”

Biggest Offender: Ryanair.

All right, readers, let’s hear it: Which airline do you think is the ugliest of them all?

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