Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Charge for carry-on bags? Spirit Airlines confuses and angers passengers

November 14, 2011 - 12:10 PM
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Packed full of bags, for a price. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"That's why I have to be on mushrooms whenever I'm flying on this one," an old woman remarked to an elegantly dressed man in a purple shirt as they waited to enter airport security early this morning before 7 a.m.

"They charged me $43 for this!" the man exclaimed, gesturing to his small bag — the kind, like a messenger bag, that you can strap onto your arm and not even luggage by any conventional measure.

"Oh, they shouldn't have charged you for that one," another passenger spoke up. "Did they ask you if you had any bags to carry on? Yeah, you should have checked zero. That bag you've got should count as a personal item."

The man continued to express his disbelief to those around him as well as to a friend on the phone as we all continued through airport security early this morning. I stood near the man, knowingly, sympathetically, and entirely aware of what struck this passenger as so egregious — his complaints and confusion were hardly original and have resounded throughout all the passengers of this airline that I've encountered in my two flights over the last couple days. Welcome to Spirit Airlines, where you can expect no complementary drinks, cheap tickets, advertisements everywhere, and the one practice that strikes so many passengers as a cardinal sin of flying and one that catches many flyers completely off guard until they reach their chosen airport.

Yes, it's true. In case you don't already know, Spirit Airlines charges for carry-on bags.

Increasingly strained airlines have begun seeking revenue in countless little ways over the last few years. For Spirit, the solution was not only to charge for checked baggage, a relatively common practice for many airlines now, but to also charge for any carry-on item, not counting a small personal bag. What's more — checked baggage fees are actually lower than these carry-on fees. To check a bag, which I chose to do, cost me $38. To carry one on the Spirit plane costs at least $40. Spirit began experimenting with these fees back in April of 2010. The airline flies to many prime places along the East Coast and offers D.C. residents flights to everywhere from Florida vacation spots to Atlantic City to the Caribbean to New York to L.A. or San Francisco. You can get by for slightly lower fees if you prepay ahead of time, but the majority of people find themselves paying these costs and more, often unexpectedly right as they enter the airport. Customers reacted, and today Spirit Airlines averages 1.5 and 2 stars on multiple consumer sites. Charge for carry-on bags? Gasp, how could they?

The trade-off, of course, is cheaper tickets. My round-trip ticket from D.C. to my destination only cost around $140, taxes included. Not bad at all. Even with the checked baggage fees, I traveled for a couple hundred bucks. I wasn't able to enjoy a soft drink and had to stare at what seemed like endless advertisements (on the luggage compartments, on the backs of seats, and on the front wall of the plane's interior, advertising the joys of Las Vegas). But so what? Those are minor inconveniences for inexpensive travel, in my book. I've flown on RyanAir and EasyJet in Europe and understand what the service-cost trade-off can mean. Conceivably, flying on Spirit would be perfect if a person only needed their purse or messenger bag for a couple days somewhere (and didn't plan on bringing much in the way of clothing, for instance, a fact that nudist resorts seized on gleefully when Spirit first announced their fees last year). It's not terrible if you know what to expect, as I did thanks to a friend who gave me a head's up early last week ... but person after person in my recent days had no idea what to expect and were blindsided by the the order to swipe their credit card at the terminal. Spirit Airlines employees had a resigned look when passengers expressed confusion — clearly, they had dealt with this blowback before.

"We're the only airline that does this," a remarkably efficient employee who bore a striking resemblance to actress Megan Mullally told a person checking in near me amid packed early-morning crowds. Another couple, minutes later in security, grumbled that they'd spent around $150 on their baggage alone and ultimately saved no money flying on Spirit Airlines on their trip.

Just days earlier, I waited in that same airport where I heard the exchange this morning and witnessed that same type of intense frustration. It was late evening and many Spirit Airlines officials were beginning to hang out casually near the empty check-in counters. Two workers grabbed special cups of coffee loaded with espresso shots for late shifts as others simply chatted about their work schedules. I had observed their interactions casually for several minutes when shouting caught me off guard and I glanced up for a closer look.

A middle-aged woman waved her arms in disgust as she slowly walked away from the counters. "This is robbery!" she yelled over to the Spirit Airlines counter before stalking off to the security line. People waiting around all looked up briefly, some locking eyes for a moment, before the moment died and everyone returned to their books, conversation, and staring in that perpetual airport limbo of a wait.

Does anyone doubt what "robbery" she meant? No, I didn't think so.

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