Spirit Airlines: Where Comfort Is Your Problem

Spirit Airlines says it’s a no-frills airline. The idea is good. They keep ticket prices down. Unfortunately, one of the frills they have no of is comfort. Another is convenience. For both, you pay, either in money or in discomfort. On our round trip from Ann Arbor to Las Vegas this weekend, we paid in discomfort. We weren’t alone. It’s all part of the Spirit experience, “Where Comfort Is Your Problem.”

Are you old enough to remember the old United Airlines slogan: “Fly the Friendly Skies”? With Spirit, it’s “We Dare You.”

You begin at the computer check-in station. Yes, it’s good to know that Spirit has entered the new millennium and allows you to get your tickets with the press of a button. But don’t get carried away pressing buttons. If you press the button that reserves your seat you are charged $18! Eighteen dollars!

I can’t figure that one out. Airlines nowadays can show you an online image depicting the inside of your airplane with a seating layout and a record of which seats are already reserved so you can determine which are still available and make the hard decisions yourself: not next to the wing; away from the exit door; in the aisle, middle, or window seat; as near or as far from the restroom as your bladder prefers—all important decisions, but a task that is performed solely by you, with no labor on the part of any employee unless you have never used a computer to check in and have to ask someone which button to push.

Clearly denying us the opportunity to reserve our own seats does nothing to keep the ticket prices down, while exercising the opportunity does serve to increase ticket prices and, thereby, company profits. So at Spirit what does the $18 cover? Why fly the extra mile in the wrong direction by insulting your guests? Is it just so you can afford to hire the PR person who is needed to cover the resulting bad press that this moronic policy generates?

We proceed to Gate 25 to wait. We expect to begin boarding a half hour before our scheduled 10:57 a.m. takeoff time. That time passes unremarkably though the sign at the counter still says that the flight is “on time.” Seventeen minutes later, still no announcement. The notice at the counter says the doors close ten minutes before takeoff time, which is now three minutes away. I remain optimistic. We can board in three minutes, I tell myself. Three minutes later, the time when the doors are scheduled to be closing, the person at the counter announces what has been obvious to everyone for at least twenty minutes, that boarding is delayed.

Finally we line up at Gate 25, where over the door it reads “to Detroit.” By the time we get to the front of the line, however, the sign is reading “to Oakland.” The couple behind us are getting nervous. I calm their nerves. Ever the optimist and always the caretaker, I tell them that the sign refers to Oakland County, one of the three counties that make up the Metro Detroit area.

On the plane, we squeeze into our seats. I read the promotional blurb: “At Spirit, we give you options and the freedom to choose. From your seat, to your snack, to your bags—you pay only for what you use, saving you money.”

It’s a great country and our freedom to choose is one of the reasons. Yes, no wonder this airline is called Spirit. I notice the storage bins overhead. You can bring small bags on board to store under your seat (still free, though I fear if anyone in Spirit management reads this blog entry that all may change) and larger bags on board to store in the bins overhead—if you want to pay $30 per bag. But here’s where freedom of choice comes in. You can also check your bags at the check-in counter at a cost of $21 per bag if you join Spirit’s $9 Club. But, instead of saying you pay $21 for this service that every airline once provided for free, they say you save $9. Using our freedom of choice, Emily and I saved $9 with our decision to sign up for Spirit’s $9 Club and check our shared bag at the counter.

The promotional blurb continues: “We’ve added a few more seats on board to save you even more, keeping fares low.” Let’s look at how that translates.

Not being too mechanically inclined, I struggle for fifteen minutes to figure out where the button is that will enable my seat back to recline and thus give me the only hint of comfort I dare to expect on this flight, until the attendant instructs us to keep our seat backs up for takeoff and I overhear a woman across the aisle lament, “He’s talking to the two people in the front row.” Apparently theirs are the only seat backs that recline.

But I understand why. The seats are so close to each other front to back, if the seat back in front of me reclines, the passenger’s head will be on my lap. Unfortunately, the backs are already naturally just reclined enough that I can’t see the screen on my laptop while I’m typing because I can’t open my laptop all the way; and I can’t slide the tray forward away from the seat back, as I can on other planes, because it doesn’t move—but I know why: If I slide it toward me, it will cut into my stomach.

That’s the front-to-back scenario. Meanwhile, the seats in each row are so close and there is so little leg room, if you still eat veal after departing from a Spirit flight your moral compass has no ability to extrapolate.

But just as you’re about to get angry, you read the next line in the blurb: “That also means we burn less fuel per person, and keep the Earth a little greener.” Oh, no, as if you aren’t uncomfortable enough, now you have to feel guilty. They’re geniuses.

One more little point I’d like to raise. It’s never been my way to sleep on intranational flights. When I was a child, my folks took my brothers and me on lots of road trips but they prepared us for the long schleps so we wouldn’t become kvetchy. (Okay, I just snuck two Yiddish words into one sentence; see if you can figure out what they mean from the context.) They never said, “Okay, boys, go to sleep for the next four hours.” Instead, they bought us car games, which were the same as non-car games, like chess and checkers, except that the bases of the pieces, instead of being smooth so they could slide across the smooth board, had pegs that could stick in any of the 64 holes so that if Dad hit a pothole or made a sudden stop the game would be saved. They taught us games of observation, like the ever-popular alphabet game, which to this day I am compelled to play at least once on any trip longer than thirty miles.

For this trip to Las Vegas, I brought my adult entertainment (no, there was no X in it), which included my laptop (see four paragraphs up), a book, and a few magazines. I was certain I didn’t sleep a wink on my way out to Las Vegas. Oh, but I must have, I thought. I missed the part of the flight when, on every flight I have ever taken in my entire life, the attendants bring around the cart that offers us complimentary coffee, water, and soft drinks. I didn’t see it; therefore, I must have slept. The logic was impeccable. There could have been no alternative explanation—until the same scenario played out on the trip back home and I realized, they don’t even provide complimentary water on this four-hour trip!

On the positive side, the crew members were friendly. Their announcements sounded spontaneous and included doses of friendly humor. If they had actually been required to provide service, I’m sure they would have been competent. And the flight was smooth. If arriving safely at your destination without ever making personal contact with an attendant is your only concern, you have nothing to worry about that I could see. Spirit will get you there. (Spirit folks, that slogan’s on me: Spirit Airlines: We’ll Get You There.) Just be prepared to do a full stretch routine after you limp off the plane. The blurb concludes: “By choosing Spirit, you’ve got more money to spend on the good times when you get there!” The first fun way to spend your money will be on a full-body massage.

Prediction: Look for Spirit Airlines to become the first airline to charge passengers to use the restrooms and, to great fanfare, inform us that they are saving us money: “You only pay for services that you need.”

Emily and I Arrive in New York

We arrived in New York yesterday in the middle of heavy traffic after 10 ½ hours on the road. Emily drove like a mad woman, motivated by her upcoming high school reunion. She started the driving at 6:15 a.m. and never relinquished the wheel for the first 450 miles, through two gas stops and three pit stops. I navigated, superbly I might add. I said, “Head east on I-80.” She followed my directions perfectly because they were clear and concise and she grew up in New York and can make the journey blindfolded.

We started the alphabet game eight miles before we reached the Pennsylvania border. Later we played another, and I played two by myself. Our new rule: Typographical errors count as wild cards. We didn’t find one and had to settle for “eXit” four times.

Traffic ground to a near halt less than a mile from the George Washington Bridge. We were greeted by 110 degrees of heat, a condition made harsher by exhaust fumes from the truck that puffed and vibrated next to us as we crawled toward the tollbooth. It took us a half hour to get through. I played three more rounds of the alphabet game, this time allowing letters that appear anywhere in the word to count.

We were surprised to then see ourselves headed to the “RFK Bridge.” What happened to the Triboro Bridge, we wondered. The name made perfect sense because the bridge connects the three boroughs of Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan. The new name has no logic unless they rename the boroughs Rqueens, Fbronx, and Kmanhattan.

That brief stretch through the two tolls cost us $14.50. Assumedly they’ll use the money for new signs.