Welcome to Ban Week, in which Splinter writers build a case for burning it all down.
One thing that is stupid about America is that you have two major holidays, both traditionally spent with family, a month apart. Christmas comes before you’ve had time to lose your Thanksgiving tum. That means if you live further than driving distance from your family, you have to buy two sets of expensive plane tickets to fly home barely two paychecks apart. Ugh! Who can afford it? You need that money for gifts and booze and holiday party outfits that you convince yourself don’t look ridiculous.
So you open up Kayak or Google Flights and plonk in your flight dates and—what’s this? A flight almost $60 cheaper than all the others, and direct, too? Gee, that’s swell! But no, alas—it’s Spirit Airlines. Which means the price you see isn’t the price you pay, it’s at least $60 higher.
Nearly all airlines now charge for checked bags or multiple carry-ons, but Spirit is one of the few that charges for any carry-on bags at all (Frontier does this, too). This is like selling a burger but charging extra for the patty, or selling a car but charging you extra for the steering wheel. If you’re flying, you need at least one bag. Very few people are flying somewhere for such a short amount of time that they need only what can fit in a purse (smaller than 18" x 14" x 8").
There are a lot of things a lot of low-budget travelers like me are happy to compromise on, including in-flight WiFi and free snacks. I don’t need peanuts hurled at me while I’m trying to sleep. But a carry-on bag isn’t an “optional service,” it’s a necessity that everyone ends up paying for, and pretending it isn’t is just a cheap trick to convince people they’re getting a better deal than they are. Charging extra for something you need to complete the flight isn’t about the cost itself—it’s about false advertising. It should not be legal to conceal what is essentially a non-optional fee. It should not be legal to be Spirit Airlines.
Oh yeah, and Spirit puts its bag fees under “Optional Services” on its website which, by the way, looks like shit. And you can’t just see what the fees are. You have to enter your airport and travel dates to get your bag fees. Which also make no fucking sense!
Spirit has recently introduced a “$9 fare club,” which it tries to trick you into buying every time you book a flight. A $59.95 annual fee that gets you a $9 reduction in your bag fees. Wow great. If you don’t want that? There’s always the Thrills Combo!
It’s so thrilling to get all the things we used to get on flights for the low low price of $72 each way!!!
These fuckers have the temerity to present this business strategy as saving you, the customer, “time and money.” Spirit has the least legroom of all airlines, which it spins as, I’m not kidding, being “cozy.” It’s a particularly sick form of very American capitalism: It tells you that cheap, uncomfortable flights are a good thing because they’re saving you money, and therefore you’re actually winning by having to change in Reykjavik and wear all your underwear at once. It congratulates you for your savvy in getting a flight that’s $50 cheaper, when you should be feeling pissed off that being poor means you’ve got to pay extra for stuff that should be included. It is false consciousness crammed into 28 inches of legroom.
Spirit, bizarrely, has its defenders, many of them “that’s just business, kid” libertarians. An Atlantic article from 2013 made a muddled sort of case for letting Spirit do its dirty thing, calling it “impressive” and “a business that is equal parts populist and profitable.” There’s nothing populist about charging likely the lowest-income travelers an extra $35 for their bag. But apparently we’re all supposed to be very proud that, while the airline industry as a whole is struggling, plucky little Spirit has found a way to make it work.
Fuck that! I don’t care! If they want to be profitable, find a way to do it that isn’t tricking people into thinking they’re getting a cheaper flight than they actually are, and hiding price-gouging behind overly complex “options.”
That’s the rub: The “populism” of low fares is entirely based on lies. Spirit’s terrible business practices are a direct result of terrible policy decisions that promoted a fantasy kind of “competition” in which airlines compete on “fares” that are only barely related to what passengers end up paying to fly from one place to another. As David Dayen noted in The American Prospect recently, airlines are increasingly relying on non-ticket revenue, to maintain their profit margins while disingenuously claiming to keep fares low, and Spirit leads the way in that practice: 46 percent of Spirit’s revenue comes from extra fees, compared to an average of 26 percent for other airlines.
That rot is spreading. United, too, is adopting Spirit’s “seat and a belt” fare category. According to Dayen, deregulation and consolidation in the airline industry is “why airlines keep getting away with the relentless degradation of service.” If it weren’t for oligopoly, Spirit’s fuck-you business model wouldn’t work.
And it shouldn’t work. Spirit shouldn’t exist. Spirit sucks. Ban Spirit.