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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RIP, Spirit — America’s most hated airline

“Spirit will always have a place in my heart ... And it does yield heartburn”

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Spirit Airlines, the low-cost carrier that launched thousands of late-night jokes and social media laments, may finally do what its haters wished for: go away forever.

After an effort to merge with Frontier Airlines failed, Spirit said it had agreed to be acquired by JetBlue Airways, with the deal expected to close no later than the first half of 2024, pending shareholder and regulatory approval. The two airlines emphasized their commitment to competing with larger U.S. carriers with low fares — while also highlighting the customer service JetBlue is known for.

If the plan is approved, the signature yellow Spirit jets will be transformed into JetBlue planes, the snacks-for-purchase will give way to free chips and cookies and the long list of fees will turn into … a shorter list of fees. This is the airline industry in the 21st century, after all.

Spirit’s eventual demise is a fate that the airline’s critics may embrace.

“Spirit will always have a place in my heart,” said John Paul Rollert, a chronicler of the airline’s business practices and Spirit customer who teaches classes in leadership and ethics at the University of Chicago. “And it does yield heartburn.”

Your favorite airline is buying your least favorite airline

Before nearly every airline started charging to check luggage, before legacy carriers created bare-bones “basic economy” fares, Spirit took a cue from Europe’s budget airline Ryanair and rolled out an ultra-low-cost model to consumers.

It unapologetically stripped away the free perks or even basic amenities that most fliers had come to expect, introducing fees to check bags, carry bags on, choose seats or have a boarding pass printed by an airport agent. Snacks and drinks — even water — come at a cost. Spirit promised low base fares in exchange but caught some travelers by surprise. And it crammed planes full of seats to maximize the number of people it could carry, limiting legroom in the process.

While Spirit wasn’t the only small airline with such a model, it became synonymous with the practices — for better or worse.

“They were certainly intrepid explorers of the frontiers of misery in the friendly skies,” said Rollert, whose mother was a flight attendant. “But in fairness, the other side of that is that they provided a way to make flying, I think on the whole, cheaper. They put a price on our misery, and for a lot of people, that price seems to be a pretty good one.”

At the same time, Spirit drew widespread attention for provocative promotions to passengers that riffed on scandals. The company offered a sale inspired by disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, deals that referenced an alleged prostitution scandal among Secret Service agents and an ad featuring suntan oil-slathered woman in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill that urged travelers to “check out the oil on our beaches.”

Media outlets wrote about the outrage that followed the promos, giving Spirit what it was looking for: free press.

Spirit, Frontier merger talks end

Mike Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, said the airline no longer needs to resort to those tactics.

“Spirit today is a much more refined airline,” he said. JetBlue’s acquisition is a move to poach Spirit for its planes and pilots, not its business model, Boyd said.

New leadership in 2016 made it a priority to improve operations — long a pain point — and changed gears on the eyebrow-raising ad strategy. Spirit went from ranking last in on-time performance among U.S. carriers large enough to report the data in 2016 to fourth two years later.

There have still been issues; Spirit had meltdowns last summer that resulted in days of cancellations and delays. And in May, the most recent month for which stats are available, only about 69 percent of flights arrived on time, ranking Spirit eighth of 10.

Still, said Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry site Cranky Flier, many carriers are dealing with disruption, and Spirit “has been running a fantastic operation.”

“Spirit has a legacy,” he said. “They fly for cheaper than many other airlines in a lot of markets and, you know, in some cases they provide a better alternative. In some cases, they’re the only one.”

JetBlue agrees to buy Spirit in $3.8 billion deal

Snyder said that if the deal to be acquired by JetBlue is approved, the customer reaction is likely to vary.

“There will be people that will be glad to spit on their grave if they go,” he said. “But there will be people that miss them.”

One group in particular, he said, has gotten a lot of mileage out of Spirit: “The late-night comedy hosts will miss it.”

Snyder believes others will seize the opportunity to fill whatever gaps Spirit leaves in the ultra-low-cost space — particularly competitors Allegiant Air and Frontier.

And Boyd does not expect travelers to wax nostalgic over Spirit like they do for other defunct airlines like Pan Am, which symbolize a more glamorous era of air travel.

“There was no glamour at all,” he said.

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