Jul. 14--Spirit Airlines passengers snaked through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport's Terminal 4 and out the door into the hot sun Friday afternoon, as too little lobby space, the sheer volume of travelers and new checked baggage charges collided to create havoc.
If you plan on flying Spirit, it's best to allow at least two hours to catch your flight, or 2 1/2 hours if you fly during peak hours in the late morning, afternoon and early evening.
Spirit has been growing exponentially at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, and with new routes to the Caribbean and Latin America, the Miramar-based low-cost carrier flew more passengers in May than any other airline.
But the check-in experience has travelers in a tizzy.
Many passengers Friday afternoon said they were unhappy about the long lines and Spirit's new baggage policy. On June 20, Spirit began charging $10 for each of the first two bags a passenger checks at the airport, and $100 for the third. The charge is cut to $5 for the first two if paid online. Other fees apply if the luggage is large or overweight.
"That is a total rip-off," said Marion Ramcharan, a Miramar nurse flying with her husband to Kingston, Jamaica. "I had to pay for each ticket and then they even add more fees."
Ramcharan, who has flown on Spirit before, said she had trouble paying for her bags online and eventually had to cough up an extra $40 at the airport for the couple's luggage.
Spirit spokeswoman Alison Russell said the issue is not baggage -- and instead blamed the long lines on inadequate airport facilities. She said the airline has told Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood that it needs more ticket space, as well as gates.
"We agree with the customers that that lobby area needs to get fixed," she said. "Sometimes that line can go out the door, and we are not happy about that at all. It does create a situation with disgruntled passengers, and frankly a disgruntled airline."
At issue, she said, is that Terminal 4 still has the Transportation Security Administration's huge baggage screening machines in the lobby area, which take up precious space.
The airport has been planning to have the baggage screening equipment removed from the lobby and placed downstairs, out of sight. That would give Spirit at least a dozen more ticket counter check-in positions, Russell said.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood spokesman Greg Meyer said the airport is "very sensitive to the issue," which was among the topics at a weekly administrative meeting on Friday.
Six Broward County Aviation staffers have been assigned to work with Spirit to try to manage the long lines.
"We can't create space out of nowhere," Meyer said. "Their incredible growth has happened very fast, and we can't create the space overnight."
He said removing the terminal's baggage screening system has posed challenges, which has led to its delayed implementation. The machines already have been removed from the lobbies of Terminal 2 and part of Terminal 3, and Terminal 4 will be next. Terminal 1 was designed without them in the lobby.
Meanwhile, construction will begin by Aug. 24 at Terminal 4, adding 11 new ticket counters, expanded Customs and Federal Inspection areas and other improvements.
"We're trying to provide as much customer service as we can," Meyer said.
The problem, he said, is that Spirit's growth has been overwhelming. From June 2006 to June 2007, the airline's passenger traffic is up 75 percent, he said.
"There are hundreds of people in an area not designed to handle that many people," Meyer said.
Adrienne Hibbert, a 21-year-old student from Miami, spent all day trying to get a flight to Kingston. She said she was drawn to Spirit's low fares, but ended up paying more after missing her morning flight because of long lines.
"You pay less money but you end up paying more and wasting your time," she said. "I lost my spirit a long time ago."
Making general aviation aircraft pay would help the airport keep costs low for airlines, especially low-cost carriers that have fueled its success.
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