Flying with Spirit Airlines requires a rather firm grasp of science. You need to know both basic science as well as the higher science of mystical communication. First of all, you have to be very good at maths. But with Spirit, you don’t really have to bother with subtraction and division; it’s all about addition and multiplication.
As a high-school student, I once won a prize for maths. Admittedly, that was a long time ago. Still, I can’t believe how easily I got caught by the bait-and-switch pricing policy of Spirit Airlines. Miss Brown, my maths teacher at St. Hugh’s, would be quite ashamed of me. But I take comfort in the fact that so many of the passengers I interviewed on my recent trip to D.C. were just as easily fooled as me. It couldn’t be that we are all bad at maths. There must be something more to it.
Spirit Airlines is branded as ‘the ultra low cost carrier of the Americas.’ That double-edged sword, ‘ultra,’ is the first clue to penetrating the mysteries of high-science sprit travel. The Latin word ‘ultra’ basically means ‘beyond.’ So the primary meaning of ‘ultra low cost’ is cheap, cheap, cheap. Nickel-and-diming customers to the nth degree!
But ‘ultra’ also suggests the rather appealing idea of going beyond the ordinary. It conjures up the spirit of luxury and excess, particularly some rare and precious commodity that has exceptional value. Of course, in this sense of the word, ‘ultra low cost’ is a fundamental contradiction in terms – like an expensive bargain. All the same, it was the illusion of a great deal that caught me.
I would never be tempted by the infamous $9 fare that Sprit Airlines dangles in front of naïve customers. It’s just too good to be true in the long run. Some other passenger has to be subsidising my $9 fare. It’s the same reason why I didn’t get caught in those pyramid ‘investment’ schemes that carried down so many greedy people: From Cash Plus to Cash Minus. In my maths book, nothing plus nothing equals nothing.
Bait and switch
But a return fare of US$695.00 from Kingston to Washington, D.C. isn’t nothing. It sounded like a viable proposition. That’s the kind of fare I was expecting from American Airlines. Alas, I foolishly passed up their fare of US$812.00, thinking it was too high, only to be faced with the prospect of paying over $1,200 two weeks later.
So I decided to buy the supposedly ‘ultra low cost’ ticket. That’s just the bait. The switch comes right after. And what a whipping! As far as I can tell, Spirit Airlines was the first to start charging for checked luggage. They got away with it and so last year they started to charge for carry-on bags. But it’s not a straightforward calculation. Spirit has turned the paying of baggage charges into a high science.
In an overly optimistic 2010 article posted on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, titled “Why the Sprit Airlines Baggage Fee Won’t Fly,” Bill Taylor argued that, “This decision reinforces Spirit’s reputation as a company so desperate for revenue that it will do whatever seems expedient – no matter how much it confuses or infuriates customers.”
Spirit’s baggage charges are, indeed, infuriatingly confusing. This is where the maths skills come in handy. There is a range of costs depending on when, where and how you pay: online; by phone; at the airport; within 24 hours of your flight; before 24 hours; international or domestic etc. etc. If you pay $59.95 to join the $9 Fare Club you get preferential treatment. If you are not a member of that elite group, you pay through your nose and every other orifice.
Seat selection is also a science. Aisle, middle and exit row seats attract different costs. When I booked my ticket on-line I could choose from among four price options. I let the computer assign my seat at no extra charge.
Spirit has also reduced the weight limit of checked luggage from 50 lbs to 40, catching out even some of their valiant frequent flyers who are not aware of the new policy. One poor woman complained raucously about having to pay $53.00 for one piece of checked baggage. She was charged $25.00 for the extra 10 lbs.
When I discovered that I was limited to 40 lbs, I weighed my suitcase. It turned out to be 15 lbs. That would leave space for only 25 lbs of content. I told my sister to select some of her clothes for me to wear because I was taking hardly any. And I travelled with a small case that weighed 5 lbs.
In D.C., I bought a lightweight suitcase at a thrift shop for the princely sum of $5.00. It was vintage Sears. My sister insisted that I take it home immediately to be aired. She had no intention of driving around with it. I lovingly washed down my ‘grip’ which made the trip home in one piece.
If I’d taken American Airlines for $812.00, I would have been entitled to 1 checked bag (50 lbs), 1 carry-on and seat selection at no extra cost. I would have gotten water and juice on the flight. The equivalent service on Spirit would have cost me $1,111.00: base fare $695; baggage costs to the tune of $332; seat selection $60; refreshments $24.
I won’t be surprised to hear that Spirit Airlines is charging a toilet fee. There must be a cost to process human waste. And since the airline prides itself on charging customers for only what they use, passengers will be allowed to take their own potty on board. For a fee, of course, to cover the cost of fumigating the aircraft which will be full of you know what.