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Spirit Has the Profits. Now It Wants the Love

Could Spirit, the airline everybody loves to hate, become a bit less hateful? If the company’s new CEO has his way, it will do just that.

This week, in his first public appearance since replacing former Spirit chief Ben Baldanza, Robert Fornaro outlined his priorities for the airline that has significantly lagged its peers in both customer satisfaction and operational efficiency, even as it racked up outsized profits.

I plan to improve upon the already very strong base of fundamentals that Spirit possesses with a focus on continuing to improve operational reliability and customer service, and maintaining our financial discipline to drive value for all of Spirit’s stakeholders.

For Spirit, any focus on reliability and customer service would represent a sea change.

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Spirit increased capacity by 30 percent in 2015, far more than any other large U.S. carrier. But the airline is facing increasing price competition, as legacy carriers like American and Delta introduce so-called bare fares to match Spirit’s low prices in some markets. Although Fornaro sees capacity growing by a modest 15 percent during 2016, the intensifying competition will make it increasingly difficult to keep load factors and profit margins at healthy levels.

In that context, Fornaro’s new emphasis on improved customer service and on-time flying makes perfect sense. Both are achievable at little or no extra cost, an important consideration for successfully operating an ultra-low-cost operation. And revenue-wise, there’s only upside.

Former CEO Baldanza was as famous for his disdain for flyers as he was for the airline’s crass marketing, resolute in his belief that cheap fares trumped such niceties as comfortable seats and friendly agents. On the other hand, Fornaro, who was CEO at AirTran before it was acquired by Southwest, seems to recognize that no-frills service needn’t mean snarky service.

While there are no plans to replace those cramped 28-inch pitch seats or throttle back on the airline’s incessant nickel-and-diming, enhancing service and reliability could only help boost sales. As Fornaro put it, “I think if we can provide low fares with a positive reputation, it will be good for business.”

Good for customers, too.

Reader Reality Check

Are you a Spirit customer? Might you be, if service improved?

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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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