Cheap fares, short staff mean long delays for Spirit Airlines: Rapid growth, cheap fares, short staff. For Spirit Airlines that often means ...

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.

The airport hopes to fix that by Thanksgiving. "Once those machines are out of that lobby it should be a much better scenario for everybody," Greg Meyer, an airport spokesman, said.

Also, in June Spirit decided to close its call center in Detroit on Aug. 31 and ship the jobs overseas. Many of the 130 workers quit early, said Spirit Senior Vice President Tony Lefebvre, so too often callers to Spirit were put on hold, referred to its Web site or ultimately disconnected.

"Certainly we were not happy with the customers having to wait on hold for a long time," Lefebvre said. Spirit plans to add 160 call center workers in the Philippines and Dominican Republic through its outside contractor in September and October, he said.

Spirit's business model also poses challenges. To offer fares as low as $1 on some flights, it must fiercely control costs, which can lead to understaffing. Figures from the Transportation Department show that Spirit had 61 employees per aircraft in 2006, compared with an average of 77 for its low-fare peer group.

The airline also uses each of its planes 12 to 13 hours a day, compared with as little as eight hours at some other airlines. Its pilots' union complained in July that Spirit had asked some of its 450 members to work overtime on foreign routes because it ran out of pilots for its international schedule.

Spirit is hiring pilots and Lefebvre said it expects to staff 35 ticket counter positions at Fort Lauderdale by November, up from 22 this summer.

Tight cost control helped Spirit turn a profit from operations of $22 million in the first half of 2007, following three straight years of losses.

But Spirit's strategy appears to wager that consumers dazzled by ultra-low fares will overlook reports by passengers unhappy with its service.

In one episode widely circulated on the Internet, Baldanza dismissed a customer complaint from Orlando by saying Spirit owes the passenger nothing. "Let him tell the world how bad we are," Baldanza wrote in an e-mail meant for managers but inadvertently copied to the customer. "He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny."

Russell, the airline's spokeswoman, said Baldanza's intent has been misconstrued. "He was basically saying don't make exceptions," she said.

There are business models that trade off service for low price, said Brad Cleveland, head of the International Customer Management Institute in Annapolis, Md.

But they only work, he said, if the customer has very low expectations. He's not sure that's the case with airlines. Emotionally, fliers care less about the bargain fare they got than the smooth completion of their trip.

"When it unravels, the $9 doesn't matter," Cleveland said.

Todd Stevenson, who runs a pest control business in Boynton Beach, agrees. His Spirit flight in July was canceled and he bought tickets on Southwest Airlines to get home from Chicago. When he phoned Spirit, he said customer service workers rarely answered, often due to high call volume.

"These people, they're not available," Stevenson said. "They absolutely hide from their customer."

Tom Stieghorst can be reached at tstieghorst@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5008

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