Ben Baldanza, president and CEO of ultralow-cost Spirit Airlines, talked with Travel Weekly's Kate Rice about Spirit's image, ambitions and speculation about a possible merger with Frontier Airlines.
Q: You're the airline that a lot of people, especially in the media, love to hate. Is that deliberate?
A: It's not that we invite criticism, but we expect it a bit. We're a bit of a disrupter, and our business plan is structured differently. The more people find out about us, the more balanced the coverage tends to be. We try to give customers more choice; if you don't want to carry a lot of bags, why should you pay for baggage infrastructure? We want to give you the real price with a la carte choices. When you go to a restaurant and pay for the dessert, you don't think it's a fee. What if someone walked into Chick-fil-A and said, "Why don't you sell hamburgers?" At Chick-fil-A, they only sell chicken. At Spirit, we only sell low airfares.
We are an awesome value proposition. You get a safe, on-time, friendly flight, but you don't get much more. For some people, that is perfect. Others want more, and there are plenty of airlines out there to offer them more.
We have built a business out of traffic that the rest of the industry rejects from a price standpoint. We want to carry a small percentage of the most discretionary-priced people in any market. We are aiming for customers who pay out of their own pocket. People paying out of their own pocket are more realistic about what they care about most. Most want to spend money when they land. They want to stay at a nicer hotel.
Q: But what about the high rate of complaints the DOT gets about Spirit?
A: A number of complaints are about our business model. They don't like that the seats don't recline or they have to pay separately for their bag or they can't get a refund. I'm not trying to minimize them. It tells us that we have to work even harder at effectively managing customer expectations. We want to make our baggage charges and other ancillary services really clear to customers so they're not surprised when they're offered those things. If we can do a better job of making customers understand what Spirit is when they buy a ticket, we can bring complaints down to numbers that look more like other carriers.
Q:What do you think of Delta Air Lines' Basic Economy fare as a response to your low fares?
A: We think that's terrific for Spirit. They are helping further a narrative that we think is good for Spirit. If you pay more for your airline ticket, you should expect more. If you pay less, you should expect less.
Q: What do you think when you're compared to Southwest Airlines?
A: Today I don't think there are real comparisons. Thirty years ago is a better comparison. When Southwest started, it was a disrupter. It had a simpler product. It didn't offer meals. [Southwest co-founder] Herb Kelleher was on TV with a paper bag over his head because people were embarrassed to fly Southwest. Historically, there are similarities. But our growth plans are different. We don't have plans to dominate any market.
Q: What's your response to speculation that you might merge with Frontier?
A: We have a lot of growth in front of us, and [mergers and acquisitions] is not in our plan. One way we keep our costs low is we keep things simple. Mergers are complicated. They're not simple.