Spirit Airlines is the only major carrier based in the spiritual home of US air travel – Florida. The airline has an established reputation as being “trashy” but in fact service levels have improved and those who criticize Spirit probably wouldn’t fly them anyway. It’s important to note those who do fly Spirit in many cases wouldn’t be able to afford to travel otherwise, so the airline is providing a legitimate public service to our state’s residents. Spirit Airlines has become an important driver of Florida’s economy, as much as elites want to pretend as if that is not the case.
This past week, Spirit announced expanded service from Jacksonville and will add Austin Texas to its route map. Earlier in the month new routes from Orlando to the Caribbean were announced complimenting the airline’s recent build up of international flying from the Central Florida city. At Spirit’s largest base, Fort Lauderdale, new service to Cali Colombia begins next month. It will be Spirit’s fifth Colombian destination served nonstop from Fort Lauderdale.
Spirit’s Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) business model has gradually gained favor among leisure travelers both domestically between major business centers and has allowed the airline to remain competitive on international routes from Fort Lauderdale against aggressive opposition from JetBlue and Southwest. In Orlando, Spirit has tapped into a competitive market and begun in the last year a number of critical connections for the market. Spirit’s route map once based entirely on leisure travel now serves a component of moving small business people from major Florida cities to destinations.
While Spirit will never attract corporate travelers, small business people have come to depend more and more on the airline which makes air travel possible on a small budget when the option wasn’t there not long ago.
The assumption among many on the outside is that the ULCC model is wholly dependent on keeping labor costs under control – or worse yet below market standards, but Spirit debunked that by giving pilots a new contract AND reporting profits while continuing to grow.
Spirit has a large cost advantage over its competitors particularly when compared to heavily-unionized Southwest Airlines, one of the world’s largest carriers but one which also touts itself as a “low-cost carrier” (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a “low cost carrier,” doesn’t indicate lower fares, but simply lower operating costs). Southwest however remains one of the world’s most admired companies while Spirit’s reputation is largely the opposite. But why?
Spirit’s reputation for flight delays, cancellations and poor service was long prohibitive. But the airline has sought in the last three years to improve its reputation for customer service in the face of competition from all quarters. Because Spirit flies very few unique routes that do not have competition from either full service airlines, or low-cost ones, they had no choice but to improve their reputation. Still Spirit caters to customers that may not be able to afford a trip if forced to fly Southwest and might get nailed for changing any trip details on American or United.
The reality is at this point in time, Spirit’s service is probably no worse than that of American or United. The number of high-profile incidents involving Spirit has dropped while American in particular continues to go from one public embarrassment to another. While, Spirit is never going to be as admired as Southwest, on average it costs hundreds of dollars more to fly Southwest just about anywhere. Some people simply cannot afford that, while others who can (including myself) generally do opt to fly Southwest or JetBlue, Spirit provides a real service.
The commitment Spirit Airlines has shown to develop a strong network of both international and domestic flights from first Fort Lauderdale and now Orlando has helped fuel tourism growth in this state. It has also allowed for commercial links to be developed between Florida and points abroad, letting small businesses fly employees to international destinations at a low cost.
The bottom line is, more and more people need to travel and Spirit Airlines makes going to and from Florida much more affordable and possible. If you don’t like them, fly someone else but understand why they continue to grow and how important they are proving to be for Florida.