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Your favorite airline is buying your least favorite airline

JetBlue and Spirit couldn’t be any more different when it comes to free snacks and legroom

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
5 min

When JetBlue made a surprise play for Spirit in April, airline industry watchers agreed: It’s a match made in opposite land.

“I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1,” said Jason Rabinowitz, an aviation blogger.

A $3.8 billion deal announced Thursday, a day after Spirit ended its merger talks with Frontier, pushed the seemingly odd pairing to the finish line.

One airline is beloved for its free customer-friendly perks such as live TV, WiFi and spacious legroom. The other is Spirit Airlines, which is hyper-focused on keeping base fares low and charging for everything from seat assignments to printing a boarding pass at the airport check-in counter.

JetBlue has “a customer-centric culture and process,” said Glenn McDonald, an aerospace consultant, in April. “Not to say that Spirit doesn’t care about customer service ... Spirit’s just an ultra low-cost carrier who, their whole corporate identity is built around low fares.”

JetBlue agrees to buy Spirit in $3.8 billion deal

Exhibit A: the snack section of each airline’s website. JetBlue displays photos of its free unlimited offerings (Dunkin’ coffee, Cheez-It crackers, plantain chips, Pepsi products) and a message: “Sip back and relax. The JetBlue experience offers a stellar selection of free snacks + drinks.”

Spirit is more stark: “There is no complimentary beverage or snack service on Spirit flights. Doing this helps us to keep prices low for all of our passengers.” Snacks and drinks are available for purchase, like most everything else on the ultra-low-cost carrier.

“These two airlines could not be any more different as far as amenities on board the aircraft go, which is why I think this was so surprising,” said Rabinowitz, who has researched passenger-experience issues for many years. He said Spirit doesn’t offer power to charge personal devices. There is no onboard entertainment. The airline says the “majority” of its fleet has WiFi for a fee.

“This is diametrically opposed to JetBlue, where you get on every flight a seat-back screen and you get free WiFi and you’ll get free snacks and beverages,” he said.

As long as the transaction closes as expected, JetBlue and Spirit would be the fifth-largest domestic carrier.

The Skytrax World Airline Awards, which is determined by customer votes, awarded JetBlue second place after Delta for the best airline in North America last year. Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards survey named JetBlue to the top spot in 2021, highlighting its “incredible customer service, extensive route network, expansive leg room (even in coach), and overall value.”

Spirit did not make either list. Rabinowitz said the carrier has made big improvements in operations in recent years — until the pandemic came along anyway — but has a bad reputation for delays that may linger.

“I would say people who may have flown Spirit in the past and had a bad experience probably have stuck with that opinion for years and may not truly know what it’s like to fly Spirit today,” he said. “I know a lot of die-hard JetBlue passengers who look to fly JetBlue at any possible chance.”

In a news release and presentation laying out the vision for the acquisition — an offer that comes two months after Spirit and low-cost rival Frontier announced plans to merge — JetBlue said it wanted to bring “the airline customers love to fly” to more passengers. The two airlines served 78 million customers in 2019.

What a Frontier-Spirit merger would mean for customers

“While JetBlue and Spirit are different in many ways, we also have much in common, including a focus on keeping our costs low so we can profitably expand and offer an attractive alternative to the dominant ‘Big Four’ airlines,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said in a statement. “We would conduct a full review of Spirit’s product offering, operational and customer technology, and talent pool to optimize the combined airline.”

Spirit has said it would evaluate the proposal and “pursue the course of action it determines to be in the best interests of Spirit and its stockholders.”

The two carriers do have some things in common: a big presence in Florida and a similar fleet. Both fly Airbus jets and, combined, have 312 aircraft on order.

But even their similar fleets have vast differences.

“Spirit’s are much more dense,” McDonald said. They don’t have business or first-class sections. While a Spirit Airbus A321 includes 228 seats, JetBlue’s versions of the aircraft — depending on the configuration and route — might have anywhere from 138 to 200. Some JetBlue planes also have a premium section called Mint.

And those extra seats on Spirit don’t leave much room for stretching out.

“JetBlue has among the most legroom on any U.S. airline,” Rabinowitz said. “And Spirit has the lowest.”

Updating Spirit’s planes would be time-consuming and expensive, he said. And in the meantime, he added, the carrier would have to maintain a “very delicate balance for a long time” as they operated the fleets.

“JetBlue offers a premium experience that its passengers know and expect to receive on every single flight,” Rabinowitz said. “If a passenger books JetBlue and somehow ends up on a Spirit A319 that doesn’t offer any of the amenities that JetBlue has been offering for 20 years, that’s going to be a very upset passenger.”