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Spirit's new strategy: Be a less terrible airline

Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

When low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines begins new service from Hollywood Burbank Airport to Las Vegas later this month, passengers may be surprised to find the carrier do something it hasn't been known for: Arrive on time.

And when the Florida-based carrier lands in Sin City, the chances that Spirit fliers will file a complaint about the service will be much lower than in the past.

The carrier that shook the airline industry a dozen years ago with its ultra low-cost fares and high fees has overhauled its business plan, easing back from its single-minded drive to maximize profits and focusing on improving customer service.

The result, so far, has been a lower profit margin but better service, fewer lost bags and fewer customer complaints. Spirit has even raked in a few industry awards.

"You gotta get the mix right, and it seems now that the mix is pretty good," aviation industry analyst Seth Kaplan said of Spirit Airlines.

Spirit still has one of the highest rates of passenger complaints when compared to its industry rivals, but the carrier has dramatically reduced that rate to 1.74 complaints for every 100,000 passengers in March from 9.68 complaints in March 2016 as the reinvention was being launched, according to federal statistics.

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The changes at Spirit helped win the carrier the titles this year of "value airline of the year" by Air Transport World, an online trade publication, and "most improved airline of the year" by the Airline Passenger Experience Assn., an industry trade group that relies on ratings by passengers flying on nearly 500 airlines to judge carriers.

"Their improvement matches the incredible strides that they have made in being one of the best airlines in the U.S. Department of Transportation reports for on-time performance," the group's chief executive, Joe Leader, said in a statement.

But Kaplan said that Spirit Airlines didn't adopt a more passenger-friendly business plan for altruistic reasons. As larger rivals began in the last few years to sell bare-bones fares to compete for budget-minded travelers, Spirit Airlines was forced to reconsider its niche in the industry, he said.

"It wasn't enough for the airline to be cheap because everyone was cheap," Kaplan said.

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