Water? That’s a fee. A carry-on? That’s another charge. Spirit’s fares are lowest, but the fees are plentiful. (The Washington Post)

When you purchase a ticket to fly America’s fastest-growing and most-
criticized airline, here is what you get: a seat, a mini-tray table, free use of the bathroom, room for your legs, maybe even some room for your knees.

You pay for everything else. A printed boarding pass is $10. Water is $3. The right to bring a carry-on is at least $35. And checked bags? Spirit Airlines was charging for those seven years ago, back when it still seemed unusual.

Offering dirt-cheap fares and add-ons galore, Spirit has become the emblem of a sensible but potentially aggravating industry transition, one in which U.S. carriers are reconsidering every aspect of how they fly and what travelers should pay for.

If anything, economists say, this reexamination is overdue. Airlines have long ranked among the most volatile companies, enduring decades of up-and-down earnings and a series of bankruptcies. Legacy carriers such as Delta and United have only recently grown profitable by raising fares, removing smaller hubs and cramming in more passengers.

But Spirit represents an alternative — and more extreme — version of the new profit-making model, one that strips away even the pretense of a pleasant flying experience and focuses solely on keeping things cheap. Though other airlines are similarly stripping away amenities, Spirit has styled itself as the unapologetic vanguard of bare-bones flying. In a summer of passenger rage over reclining seats, Spirit has launched a lighthearted ad telling potential customers not to worry about such a scenario, because “our seats don’t recline.”

Among domestic carriers, Spirit has the lowest fares (even counting the add-ons) but also the highest profit margins. It has packed planes, but also — by far— the highest rate of consumer complaints. A Greyhound in the sky, some online reviewers say. Broken Spirit, says another. Skytrax, a global airline rating site, says Spirit is the nation’s only two-star carrier.

“The only thing missing was the gate person using a gun to rob you!” one passenger wrote on the Skytrax Web site.

There are two ways to consider these complaints, airline analysts say. One is that the Spirit experience really is aggravating. You have 28 inches of legroom, tightest in the industry. Some customers feel duped by baggage fees that are clearly announced on Spirit’s Web site but not on such third-party travel sites as Orbitz and Travelocity.

But those complaints, others say, might be a product of expectations more than the airline itself. Three decades ago, Southwest was lashed for not serving meals; then travelers caught on. Now Spirit is trying to coach customers anew. Many airlines bake the price of peanuts and carry-on bags into your ticket, the company says on its Web site. But Spirit offers what it calls “Frill Control,” so customers are “never stuck paying for extras you didn’t ask for.” These add-ons allow the company to drop its base fares; 40 percent of its revenue comes from the extras.

“All you get with Spirit is a passage into a tin can into the sky,” says Tom Parsons, who runs the Web site BestFares.com. “I call them the good, the bad and the ugly of the airline industry.”

Bare necessities

Even in pre-merger days, when the United States had nine major carriers instead of four, precious little differentiated one airline from the next. Spirit’s hope, when it first adopted the ultra-low-cost model in 2007, was to change that, and play Super 8 to the others’ Marriott. That meant catering almost exclusively to budget-minded leisure travelers. It also meant finding every possible way to drive down fares.

One way: Keep costs down at headquarters, a deep-in-the-
Florida-’burbs hideout next to a credit collection agency. Spirit doesn’t have a receptionist or a grand entrance to impress guests. Carpets are stained, walls are scratched. Employees will soon have to take out their own trash to save on custodial costs.

Another way: Save money on fuel, the biggest expense for airlines. Spirit has a near-obsession with the weight of its planes and eschews extra bathrooms, extra galleys, in-flight entertainment systems, even WiFi, which adds several hundred pounds to the plane’s weight. Because of the carry-on fees, Spirit customers pack fewer bags. The overhead bins are lighter. So is the latest seat, a slimmed-down model with T. rex armrests and no seat-back pockets.

Lastly: Push the boundaries of efficiency. Spirit operates its planes nearly 13 hours daily, three or four hours more than most airlines. Though red-eyes are typically reserved for international or coast-to-coast flights, Spirit runs a 2:40 a.m. flight from Plattsburgh, N.Y., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There’s a 12:10 a.m. flight from Las Vegas to Minneapolis. Those flights, by the way, are typically full.

“The airline industry, traditionally, has been a very homogeneous industry,” president and chief executive Ben Baldanza said in an interview at his office, where he typically works with the shades open and the lights turned off. “And people thought of airlines as one clump. But there’s no reason, from an economic sense, that airlines should be any less segmented than retail or autos.”

Before going the ultra-low-cost route, Spirit had been flying planes regionally for more than two decades — and reliably losing money in the process, Baldanza said. So far, the new business model has proved lucrative for shareholders. Spirit stock (given the Nasdaq ticker symbol SAVE) has risen to about $70 per share, compared with $12 three years ago.

Only about two in five American adults fly in a typical year; it’s still a privilege for the relatively well-off. But Spirit aims for the “most economically sensitive group” within that spectrum, Baldanza said. He compared the average Spirit customer to one who shops at Costco — somebody willing to accept a different model in exchange for lower prices. The Spirit model has a precursor in Europe, where ultra-low-cost carrier Ryanair has about 12 percent of the market share. Spirit currently claims 2 percent of the U.S. market and plans to more than double its fleet over the next seven years.

Spirit maintains the assumption that, in nearly every major U.S. city, there’s a critical mass of travelers who either would jump at the chance to pay less or don’t fly because it’s too costly. Spirit tries to attract those customers by flying along already heavily trafficked routes — Chicago to Los Angeles, New York to South Florida. Spirit tends to fly those routes once a day. A bigger carrier flying, say, four back-and-forth routes per day is loath to match Spirit’s prices. But the traveler horror stories tend to come if Spirit cancels a flight. Passengers often can’t be rebooked until the next day.

Cramped space

Travelers often talk about the flying experience as an inexorable race to the bottom, every comfort grinding to zero. Just two months ago, Airbus made news by patenting a minimalist, new-age seat — more like a pole passengers could straddle. But the truth is, thanks to Spirit, flying is already as crammed as it can legally get. Citing evacuation requirements, the Federal Aviation Administration allows no more than 145 seats on an Airbus A319; Spirit has 145. (United, by comparison, has 120.) The FAA allows no more than 179 seats on an A320. Spirit has 178 — but it’s working on adding one more.

“In 18 months we’ll have that fixed,” Baldanza said with a slight laugh.

Those who fly Spirit tend to talk about their experience as one might recount a night at a blackjack table, a mix of disappointment and too-good-to-be-true fortune. During a recent round of interviews at several airports, two vacationers from South Jersey said they felt Spirit gouged them on fees and soured the start of their Florida cruise. A federal government worker skipped out for three days when he saw round-trip Spirit tickets from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale for $46. He packed a swimsuit and trail mix.

Travelers typically gravitate toward Spirit for short trips where they bring little. Those who do come with luggage can sometimes be seen at the Spirit check-in counter making frantic rearrangements, redistributing weight, jamming items into backpacks.

“I’d seen their customer reviews and almost worried,” said Ted Farran, a Washington-based real estate manager. “Like, what is this, some kind of junk airplane? But the planes are new enough. The flight attendants aren’t rude. And it’s cheaper than a bus. So I won’t complain.”

On board, few passengers open their wallets for the food and drinks. But the retail environment is still “very intense,” aviation consultant Bob Mann said. On most flights, ads for a Vegas nightclub are plastered on the overhead bins.

As for what’s next, Baldanza says Spirit might one day try to sell travelers on their dive packages or their tee times. Another idea, perhaps more of a long shot, is that Spirit might one day offer loans, allowing customers to purchase their tickets while the airline collects a commission.

“The more we get on that,” Baldanza said, “the lower we can make our fares.”

Ultimately, Baldanza said, he doesn’t want Spirit to be the Dollar General of aviation. “We want to be the Eighty-Nine Cent General,” he said.