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America’s Most Complained-About Airline: Spirit

America’s Most Complained-About Airline: Spirit

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?

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  • John Hill

    I am not surprised. I have flown Spirit once. That was enough. Yes, the price was great. But the stress of not knowing what things I did would cost me extra and having to understand all those rules has made me choose other airlines. Not surprisingly, Southwest is my airline of choice. The price they quote you is the price you pay. No change fees is a bonus. I almost never pack more than a carry on but for those who check bags, their policies are wonderful.

  • Sohan Tanna

    I’ve never had a problem with spirit (only flown them twice though) but I’ve had absolute nightmares with Delta. Delta consistently screwed me over, but every other airline on the list I can’t say a bad thing about.

  • Lordkent

    Spririts Business Class/Big Seat between Tampa and Dallas usually costs me $340 Less than Americans, that buys me a L of a lot of Food and Drink, as I only fly with a small overnight bag their unusual bags fees do not effect me. Just wish their Awards lasted longer than 90 days.

  • jvmurph

    I had the Spirit World MasterCard so my points would never expired, EXCEPT I tried booking flights with points and could never get a flight when I wanted to travel. I could not book online to see what was available and had to call a representative to try to book. The representatives all had heavy accents and I could never completely understand what they were saying. I through in the towel and cancelled the MasterCard and let the points expire. Never again will I try to do anything with Spirit.