New Plane to Uplift Spirit Airlines

Passengers of Spirit Airlines Inc. will get their first look this week at the new plane that will become standard fare for the low-cost carrier, which is essential to its plan to fly to more destinations and win over passengers.

The airline's first Airbus A319 is slated to debut at Detroit Metro Airport Wednesday and whisk its first passengers to Palm Beach, Fla., in 138 gray leather seats surrounded by a bright-white cabin.

By the end of the week, the new plane -- there are 28 more on order -- is scheduled to fly daily from Detroit to Myrtle Beach, S.C., New York and Los Angeles.

The $2-billion price tag for the leased aircraft, which also includes six larger planes, is part of the Miramar, Fla.-based carrier's strategy to become known for its flying experience as much as its low fares.

"This is not your dad's Spirit. This is a new Spirit," said Barry Biffle, Spirit's senior vice president of marketing and chief marketing officer.

Spirit's new planes offer a little more room in the seats and adjustable headrests. They will save on fuel costs for the private airline and allow it to fly longer distances, opening up options for new destinations across the country and in South America.

In three to five years, the airline expects to as much as double its 23 daily flights out of Metro Airport, Biffle said.

By Friday, the airline is slated to start flying its second A319. By December it will have 10, and in about two years Spirit should have all 29, replacing its entire fleet of aging MD-80s, which the company leased as used planes.

By year's end, Spirit will fly six 150-seat Airbus A321s. The airline introduced the first of those to its fleet in the fall.

The new planes won't, however, be as technology-wired as those of rival airlines JetBlue or Frontier.

Spirit also has an option to lease 50 more Airbus aircraft, which would bring its total investment in a new fleet to $5 billion.

Spirit's local roots trace back to 1980, when it started as an Eastpointe-based charter carrier. By 1992, the company built its fleet and changed its name. Spirit moved its headquarters to Florida in 1999 and eventually became the second-largest carrier at Metro Airport.

While an important step for Spirit, the new planes won't threaten Detroit's largest carrier, Northwest Airlines Inc., said Terry Trippler, CEO of Minneapolis-based

Spirit's share of passengers in 2004 was 4.8 percent, compared with Northwest's 79 percent, which includes its two commuter carriers.

Even doubling Spirit's 23 daily flights won't bring it close to Northwest's 570 daily flights out of the McNamara Terminal.

But Trippler said Spirit is a spunky airline that is making the right move.

"They don't have much of an image yet in the industry. This will help give them exposure. It will make them a more serious contender," he said.

The new planes might convince travelers, who might otherwise steer clear of Spirit, to give it a chance.

Locally, the company has had to shake the image of being a nomadic, discount carrier at Metro. Before it leased gates at the airport in 1999, the airline had to wait for gates to free up to park planes.

But the experience should change. In addition to the airline's new planes, it will have several of its own gates at the planned North Terminal, which will have 27 gates to replace the existing Smith and Davey terminals.

The change is welcomed among passengers, who have noticed Spirit's aging planes.

"It had a little bit of an antiquated feel. But I think the airline had done a decent job making it as modern as possible," said 22-year-old Armen Terjimanian, who flew on Spirit from Detroit to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl this year.

Passengers have described Spirit's planes as being old but clean.

Spirit's first A319 -- named Spirit of Detroit for its local roots -- still had plastic lining on the carpet last week. Its leather seats gave the cabin that new-car smell.

The two-toned gray seats have adjustable headrests. The sides of the headrest curl around the head, with a clicking sound, so when passengers nod off, their heads won't lean into the aisle or a neighbor's shoulder.

The legroom is about the same as Spirit's MD-80 and Northwest's DC9-50. For the extra $30-$80 at the airport to upgrade a Spirit ticket to one of the eight business-class seats on the other side of the blue curtain, passengers get about six more inches of leg room than coach and three more than first class on a DC9-50.

Expect a little more seat room in coach. The Airbus A319 offers 6 more inches in the width of the cabin than the Boeing equivalent, a 737, which Southwest Airlines flies.

"You're able to give everybody another inch, on average," Biffle said. The seats are designed to make passengers feel like they have more room. "It's a little bit subliminal. You're going to feel a lot better," Biffle said.

But Spirit's new planes lack an entertainment system that would have -- with one sweeping change -- bolstered the carrier's flying experience to that of the popular JetBlue Airways Corp. New York-based JetBlue, which does not fly out of Metro, launched service in 2000 with new Airbus aircraft boasting screens in every seat back that offer free satellite TV.

Spirit has been studying portable or seat-back TV screens for about two years.

Spirit CEO Jacob Schorr told the Free Press last year that Spirit's entertainment system will be "more modern than JetBlue because it will be the latest and not like the one designed in 1999."

But the technology and fees are expensive. Plus the airline says the satellite TV service JetBlue and Denver-based Frontier Airlines use might not work on Spirit's international routes.

"It's a very complicated decision, which is why we are taking our time," said Lynne Koreman, Spirit's senior director of marketing and communications. Those entertainment systems also make a plane heavier, which means it will use more fuel.

Fuel economy was one reason Spirit leased the new planes.

With the new planes, the airline expects to save 20 percent to 30 percent in fuel costs on a typical MD-80 schedule. More specifically, Spirit will save about $7 per passenger for a mostly full 3-hour flight, spending about $33 per passenger on fuel compared to $40.

"In the long run, it should allow us to maintain our low fares," Koreman said.