New Spirit CEO To Guide Fleet Transition

In what could be described as a planned succession, Ben Baldanza became chief executive officer of Miramar-based Spirit Airlines on Tuesday. He replaces Jacob Schorr, who served as CEO since 2000 and will remain chairman of the board of directors.

"I'm very happy, but at the same time this is a natural evolution," said Baldanza, who came aboard as president in January 2005 with a goal of recruiting a strong management team and an understanding he would move up when Schorr, an investor in the company, stepped down.

Schorr, 61, who joined Spirit in 1997 as chief information officer, said he has been pleased with the company's financial and operational results, as well as a "clear business plan, a great new fleet and exceedingly capable leaders."

Spirit does not discuss its earnings, but the company did receive $100 million in new financing, led by Oaktree Capital Management LLC and Goldman Sachs Credit Partners LP, last July. Much of that was dedicated to securing new aircraft.

As head of the largest privately owned airline in the country, Baldanza, 44, said he plans to keep Spirit on its present course of holding the line on costs, offering attractive fares and seeking to compete successfully with the legacy carriers such as Delta Air Lines and US Airways.

Before coming to Spirit, Baldanza worked for US Airways for more than five years, most recently as senior vice president for marketing and planning.

Through the end of the year, Baldanza will oversee Spirit's transition to an all-Airbus operation, retiring gas-guzzling MD-80s and creating the youngest fleet among U.S. airlines. The switch from an MD-80 to an Airbus reduces fuel consumption by 20 to 30 percent, he said.

Spirit, he said, "remains strongly committed" to the Fort Lauderdale area, which he described as a "legitimate international gateway that should be developed as such."

"It's not just a low-fare alternative to Miami or West Palm Beach," Baldanza said.

For Spirit, which serves 30 cities, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport represents a key hub for flights to the Northeast, Midwest and Caribbean. The airline leases 15 gates and operates from two concourses.

Baldanza said he hopes to work closely with airport officials to plan for the future, including possible construction of an international terminal and an additional runway.

"These kind of projects take many years, but we'll be here and hopefully we'll see them happen," he said. "We live here, we own homes here, we eat here. We're invested in this community."

Copyright (c) 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.



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