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America’s Most Complained-About Airline: Spirit

SmarterTravel

Spirit is the airline that everyone loves to hate. The company mesmerizes customers with rock-bottom fares, then dings them for everything short of lavatory access. Then, having lured them onboard, Spirit crams travelers into seats with 28-inch pitch, one of the industry’s least-spacious seating configurations. Snacks or drinks? They’ll cost you.

And don’t even ask about the carrier’s so-called loyalty program, Free Spirit, which expires points after just three months. Unless, of course, you hold a Spirit Airlines World MasterCard ($59 annual fee).

It’s a business model that generated a healthy $177.5 million profit for the airline in 2013, and an enviable 31.8 percent return on invested capital.

It’s also a model that generates more than its fair share of complaints.

Just how much more was highlighted in this week’s report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, which found that among U.S. carriers, Spirit was by far the most complained about, relative to the number of passengers it carried. In fact, Spirit’s complaint rate was three times higher than the next airline, with around nine complaints per 100,000 enplanements versus around three for Frontier.

The rate-of-complaint report was based on the DOT’s consumer-complaint data, and found the most and least complained-about carriers were as follows:

  • Spirit
  • Frontier
  • United
  • American
  • American Eagle
  • US Airways
  • Pinnacle
  • Skywest
  • Delta
  • JetBlue
  • AirTran
  • Alaska
  • Southwest

The largest share of traveler complaints (33 percent) was flight problems, followed by baggage (15 percent), and reservations/ticketing/ boarding and customer service (both at 13 percent).

In addition to compiling and analyzing the raw DOT data, the report makes recommendations designed to provide more comprehensive, more useable data. One of those recommendations in particular mirrors a push that I’ve been advocating for years:

That the DOT require airlines to report com¬plaint data about frequent flyer programs separately so that it can be added to the data that are available in DOT reports and in the future searchable public consumer complaint database. In addition, the DOT should in¬clude airline-by-airline complaint data about frequent flyer programs as a discrete category.

No doubt such reporting would further highlight the low esteem in which Spirit is held by its customers. More importantly, though, a discrete focus on issues related to mileage schemes would serve as a reality check on other airlines and the continuously shifting landscape of loyalty programs.

There’s a recommendation specifically aimed at the airlines themselves as well: “Airlines should pay close attention to com¬plaint data that the DOT publishes and work to correct major lapses.”

Are you paying close attention, Spirit?

Reader Reality Check

Any surprises, given your experiences with these airlines?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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