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Are Friendlier Skies Ahead After Spirit Shakeup?

If the “airline everyone loves to hate” replaces its CEO, who is widely credited with nurturing that airline’s customer-unfriendly culture and policies, should flyers expect friendlier skies ahead?

Maybe, but it’s complicated.

The airline in question is, of course, Spirit. And in a move that took industry-watchers by surprise, Spirit yesterday announced that it had replaced its longtime president and CEO, Ben Baldanza.

On Monday, Baldanza was the sneering face of the airline infamous for its cheesy ads and sneaky fees; on Tuesday, he was gone.

So, does his departure herald a new chapter in Spirit’s contentious relationship with its customers?

It probably does. But that’s just a sidebar to the main story.

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Baldanza’s replacement is Robert Fornaro, whose most recent airline stint was as president and CEO of AirTran. That carrier, prior to its acquisition by Southwest, managed to operate profitably as a low-cost airline without antagonizing its customers. So yes, there is reason for Spirit’s disaffected passengers to be hopeful.

But the bigger story is industry consolidation. And that’s a decided negative, not just for Spirit customers but for air travelers generally. Less competition inevitably leads to fewer choices and higher prices.

It has long been speculated that a merger between Spirit and fellow ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier would benefit both companies, operationally and financially. In addition to their similar “bare fares” pricing, both airlines operate all-Airbus fleets, and both use the New Skies reservations system for bookings.

But that wasn’t going to happen under Baldanza, who was on record as opposing such a tie-up, preferring to grow Spirit organically. For his part, Fornaro has expressed no such reservations. Indeed, a highlight of his resume is his leadership role in the successful sale and merger of AirTran and Southwest.

Baldanza’s out, Fornaro’s in. As a result, customer satisfaction is likely to improve, and Spirit is likely to merge with Frontier. One step forward, two steps back.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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