Criticism of his company’s predacious practices doesn’t faze Baldanza. “Predatory means selling at below your cost,” the Spirit CEO told a skeptical questioner in a Reddit AMA talk last July. This is not only a novel definition, it is one that Spirit doesn’t risk illustrating. In October of last year, analysts at Morgan Stanley declared the carrier the “Most Profitable Airline in the World.” It is also among the fastest growing. Spirit launched 24 new nonstop routes in 2014 and plans another 26 for this year.
Success breeds admirers. In December, Delta announced that it was introducing five categories of service, including its answer to Spirit’s Bare Fare: Basic Economy. In addition to its precarious grammar, Basic Economy does not allow passengers to pick their seats, change their itineraries, or fly standby. The move is merely the most recent evidence that Spirit has become a trendsetter—arguably, the trendsetter—in the American airlines industry. But what trend is it exactly? Baldanza has repeatedly affirmed that Spirit is refining the art of offering affordable airfare, an effort which he qualifies as nothing less than an essentially democratic endeavor. He has a point, insofar that we live in a world where social mobility and simple mobility increasingly go hand-in-hand. Yet other low-cost carriers have long provided models of budget air travel without engendering nearly the angst of Spirit. Two of them, Jet Blue and Southwest, were even ranked number one and number two, respectively, in the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index survey of U.S. airlines.
No, rather than being a trailblazer in economy pricing, Spirit’s real significance is that it has come to embody one of the two guiding principles of customer service that, in capitalism, have always been contending centers of moral gravity. The first principle, embodied by Braniff, is: The Customer is Always Right. This approach assumes that commercial success depends on building strong bonds of customer loyalty. The second principle is: Caveat Emptor, or more familiarly, Buyer Beware. It assumes that, when it comes to turning a profit, preying on the ignorance and necessity of customers is not simply acceptable for private enterprise, it’s standard operating procedure.
It is a commercial truism that nothing succeeds like success, but might makes right is its cultural corollary. In the airlines industry, the success of Spirit has helped to legitimize practices that treat passengers, in the words of one consumer watchdog, like “meat in a seat.” When a carrier assumes the moral status of its customers to be different from an ATM only in respect to daily limits, monetizing the mistakes of first-time flyers can be a lucrative business. And for those passengers who return to Spirit a second, or even a third time, to say nothing of 13, they do so with a fatal sense of capitalism’s capacity to justify cruel choices, as well as with a growing cynicism of dealing with a company that regards common decency as a convenience fee.
The contempt is mutual. A significant flight delay prevented a customer named James and his wife from attending a concert in Atlanta, the sole purpose of their trip. James emailed several of Spirit’s top executives to air his complaint. Baldanza made the mistake of hitting reply all, which is how the exchange became public: “We owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned,” Baldanza wrote in response. “Let him tell the world how bad we are,” Baldanza offered. “He’s never flown before with us anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”
Shamelessness has certain advantages. A more succinct expression of Spirit’s credo is truly hard to imagine.
I have flown great airlines and have flown horrible ones I kind of defend Spirit Air. It exists to get you from a to b as cheaply as possible. For some people at some points in their life, that matters a lot. You may not like it but in the end, you chose to fly the cheapest airline in North America. You get what you pay for.