LOS ANGELES -- Spirit Airlines, the low-cost airline that has reported the highest rate of passenger complaints, has spent the last few years improving customer service and now is trying something new: seats that the carrier touts as roomier and more comfortable.
Spirit Airlines Chief Executive Ted Christie unveiled the new seats Monday at an airline expo in downtown Los Angeles, saying they demonstrate the carrier's commitment to budget-minded passengers.
"We are listening, that's the message," Christie said in an interview during the Airline Passenger Experience Expo. "We want to show them that we are interested in investing in our products in ways that they think would create value."
The seats will be included in 60 new planes the airline plans to add to the fleet by 2021 and will be installed in 40 existing planes that will be retrofitted in the same time frame. The carrier now has a fleet of about 135 planes.
The move is part of a bigger effort by the Florida-based airline to re-create itself, about a dozen years after it launched with ultra-low fares but a long menu of fees for services such as printing out a boarding pass ($10) and upgrading to roomier seats ($25 to $175, depending on the length of the flight).
Although the fees helped the carrier collect some of the industry's widest profit margins, Spirit Airlines' service has also drawn the highest rate of passenger complaints.
The economic financial meltdown of 2008 forced every major U.S. airline to squeeze more seats per cabin and add fees for services that were previously included in airfares, but Spirit Airlines took the focus on pinching pennies to new heights. Spirit even charges up to $35 to book a flight through a reservation agent.
Industry experts note that since the economic crisis, some of the major airlines have begun to spend extra on customer service, such as offering free snacks or free wireless internet for economy seat passengers. But they say they doubt that other carriers will follow Spirit Airlines' lead by investing in bigger, roomier seats for fliers who book the cheapest seats.
"I don't think the major carriers will change the way they approach the passenger in economy," said Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of the publication Skift Airline Weekly.
As part of its effort to repair its image, Spirit Airlines has dramatically improved its rate of on-time arrivals by adding more time in between flights to respond to unforeseen problems such as mechanical issues and staffing snafus. Improving on-time arrival rates not only helps to reduce passenger complaints, but saves on the cost the airline must pay staff in overtime or to rebook passengers on delayed flights, among other expenses.