Niagara Gazette

January 3, 2013

GLYNN: Airline serving Niagara area under sharp attack

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A magazine writer who deals with consumer travel problems is highly critical of Spirit Airlines, the Florida-based company that operates flights to the Sun Belt out of the Niagara Falls International Airport.

Christopher Elliott, a columnist for the National Geographic Traveler, contends that Spirit:

n Treats its passengers like cargo.

n Is known for its numerous fees (a $100 charge for carrying a bag on a plane if the customer failed to pay the lower fee online).

n Its employees have a reputation for being rude.

n It’s anti-Southwest and, basically, does exactly the opposite of what that popular airlines does for its passengers.

As you might expect, one person bound to take issue with that harsh assessment is Ben Baldanza, the chief executive officer of Spirit. Elliott still thinks, however, that Spirit’s success defies an easy explanation. Also, industry insiders say that it’s not even fair to compare the two airlines.

If Spirit’s policy on fees drives consumers crazy, as Elliott charges, there’s obviously a method to the CEO’s strategy. “Paying extra for the carry-on (not pre-paid), the parking and the $9 to enroll in Spirit’s Fare Club ... all of that allows us to have much lower fares,” Baldanza says.  

He notes the $100-per-bag fee for a carry-on is to discourage those last-minute passengers showing up at the gate and delaying the departure. 

“It’s like a fine,” Baldanza adds, “In fact, we don’t want anyone to be paying $100 but it turns out that it’s a way to speed up the boarding process.” If they had checked that online or at a nearby kiosk in the airport, the cost would have been perhaps $20 to $25. Passengers just need to be a little more savvy about their traveling plans. 

Some of Spirit’s passengers are concerned that the airline does a poor job of disclosing its fees. While that may be a valid criticism, Baldanza notes that nearly 30 percent of its traffic comes from a third party (e.g., a travel agent) that sometimes results in less transparency. “We see more instances where people have not been (made) fully aware of those fees,” the CEO said.

Surprisingly. Baldanza didn’t seem too upset over Elliott’s column except for the “anti-Southwest” reference. “That really bothered me,” he said, adding that Spirit’s policy is similar to Southwest’s initial strategy in the 1980s when much lower prices were offered to stimulate business. To show there’s no hard feelings, the CEO has invited Elliott to visit the company’s corporate headquarters in Miramar, Fla., for a closer look at how Spirit operates.

Baldanza, a native of Rome, N.Y., has visited the Falls over the years and is confident that Spirit will continue to profit from its service here. “In fact, we’re hoping to some day expand our flights out of that airport. We think it offers us a great opportunity for growth.”

If you’ve flown Spirit out of the local airport, it would be interesting to hear your take on the airline, its service, the fares and overall performance.

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If Congress prevents the nation from going over the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Eve, they might be accused of acting under the influence (intoxication) — David Frum, syndicated columnist and former adviser to President George Bush.

Contact Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.

Contact Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.