Sep. 30--With its $9 online specials, Spirit Airlines has gained a reputation for low fares. Has it also gained a reputation for low-quality service?
More than a few people who have flown Spirit this summer would answer yes. They contend Miramar-based Spirit doesn't have enough people to staff its ticket counters at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, or its reservations and customer service centers elsewhere.
Spirit attracted more than 3.3 million passengers in the first six months of the year, and through rapid growth vaulted into the top spot this summer as the busiest carrier at Fort Lauderdale's highly competitive airport. Its low fares draw customers from throughout South Florida.
But tales of woe from passengers are raising doubts about the wisdom of Spirit's business strategy, which depends on very low costs to succeed. Although Spirit is bringing more international tourists to Fort Lauderdale and keeping the airport busy, Broward County leaders are concerned about its ragged growth.
"Spirit needs to take care of their people, as any good corporation should," said County Commissioner Stacy Ritter, the panel's point person on airport issues.
The story of Kathleen Paolucci, a Fort Lauderdale real estate agent, illustrates many of the problems.
Paolucci and her sister booked a trip on Spirit's new service to St. Maarten and arrived at the airport at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 5. Their flight was scheduled for 10:55 a.m. A long line of passengers snaked from Spirit's counter out of Terminal 4 and down the sidewalk toward Terminal 3.
By 10:30 a.m., they were still outside. Paolucci's sister ducked inside several times but was told to get back in line, the flight would be announced. When she checked again 15 minutes later, the flight was already boarding. They were rushed into a shorter line but as they reached check-in, the plane took off.
Spirit's next flight to St. Maarten was in five days so they shelled out $442 for seats on an American Airlines flight leaving Aug. 6 from Miami.
"I was just about in tears and very frustrated," Paolucci said in a note to Spirit President Ben Baldanza asking reimbursement for the American tickets. After failing to reach Spirit on the phone and via e-mail, she mailed a certified letter on Aug. 14, but other than the return receipt from the post office, no one has responded. Spirit officials said they have a process for pulling passengers out of queues, but it broke down in this case.
While it is hard to know how common such passenger stories are, Spirit already exceeds other airlines in formal complaints about performance. In the first half of 2007, regulators logged 122 Spirit complaints, or 3.62 for every 100,000 passengers boarded, a rate worse than any major airline.
In July, the latest month available, the number of complaints soared to 75 from 27 in June and just 9 in July 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most cited flight problems or mishandled baggage.
Spirit expects to do better this fall, and has taken steps to reduce complaints, such as hiring more employees to staff the phones and the ticket counters, spokeswoman Alison Russell said. "I think there were some rough patches during some periods of the summer," she said.
That could be said of many airlines. Summer is a peak season for air travel and the industry is flying fuller to stay profitable. Industrywide, complaints are up 46 percent this year, regulators say.
But some problems are unique to Spirit. A fairly small airline, Spirit is trying to get bigger in a hurry, adding 13 destinations this year alone. That has strained its personnel, especially at the Fort Lauderdale airport, where passenger traffic was up 72 percent in July over 2006.
When Spirit planned for many of its new routes, it expected that bulky X-ray machines run by the Transportation Security Administration would be gone from the lobby of Terminal 4, where its ticket counters sit. But airport foot-dragging left them in place all summer, forcing passenger lines outdoors at peak hours.
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As head of the largest privately owned airline in the country, Baldanza, 44, said he plans to keep Spirit on its present course.
Spirit Airlines will begin service in January at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which has been trying for a year to replace the hole left when Delta Air Lines eliminated its Dallas hub.