Are you too stupid to fly?

There are two ways of looking at Allen Nesbitt’s case: We can blame the airline for what went wrong — or we can blame the traveler.

Either way, this case is unfixable, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

The airline? Spirit. Yeah, I know. But stay with me on this one.

Nesbitt’s son-in-law booked a ticket from Portland to Las Vegas for a friend, whom Nesbitt describes as “not computer literate.”

Let’s pause for a moment. You probably know someone who isn’t computer literate, such as an elderly aunt or grandfather.

Keep this question in the back of your mind: Do you also think they’re stupid? We’ll come back to that in a second.

Nesbitt’s son-in-law asked him if he could print a boarding pass for the son-in-law’s friend. And that’s when the trouble started.

“After I typed in the confirmation code, instead of a boarding pass, I was directed to a page to pay baggage fees,” recalls Nesbitt.

“The page wanted $39 each way for a carry-on bag. When I agreed to that, the charge became $45. In order to get the lower rate, it stated that I would need to join a club for $59.99,” he says.

“I then was directed to a page to purchase a seat. I paid $10 each way for a seat,” he recalls. “Finally, I was able to print his boarding pass. I sent an email to my son-in-law, letting him know that I had the boarding pass and had had to pay $110 to obtain it.”

Nesbitt’s son-in-law, who was overseas when this happened, told him none of those steps were necessary. He was right.

Related story:   I just want a refund for my flight. Can you do that, Spirit?

“In my attempt to obtain the boarding pass, I did not notice that there was, in very small type, a line that said something like, ‘Skip this step and continue,’” he says. “The same was true for seats. ‘If you do not select a seat, one will be assigned at the airport,’ and ‘Skip this step and continue.’”

Nesbitt called Spirit and was connected to an offshore call center. A representative explained to him in broken English that Spirit doesn’t refund fees. He offered a flight credit, which Nesbitt won’t accept because he never plans to fly on Spirit.

“I feel that this company’s website is deceptive and misleading,” he says. “I believe that I should be refunded this amount as it was not necessary to board the airplane, and that I was prompted into purchasing these services unnecessarily.”

So let’s get right to the two camps that will inevitably form in this discussion:

Blame the passenger.
The nicer ones are thinking that Nesbitt’s son-in-law’s friend should have used a travel agent if he lacked the computer skills. Or maybe the phone. But most travel agents aren’t really into simple, point-to-point itineraries, so he may or may not have found someone to help him with a Spirit ticket.

The not-so-nice ones are thinking these guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. Maybe they deserved what they got. What they don’t realize is that Nesbitt is a certified public accountant — a guy who is paid to notice the details. He may not be an experienced air traveler, but he’s probably an above-average consumer. So if an accountant can be fooled, imagine how many other passengers were duped by Spirit’s booking screens?

Related story:   Spirit charges for checked luggage again ... and again

Blame the airline.
Indeed, Spirit has made deception its business model. While some careful passengers are rewarded with a cheaper flight, the vast majority of travelers are fooled into joining a bogus “fare” club or paying extra for their carry-on luggage. Just because you can’t use a computer or don’t know the ways of the airline industry doesn’t mean you deserve to be ripped off, the “blame-the-airline” crowd says.

Who’s right? Well, I think you all know where I stand on this issue.

This idea — that some people are just too stupid to fly — is one of the most anti-consumer sentiments I’ve ever encountered. It festers and spreads in corporate boardrooms, in aircraft galleys and on credit card shill blogs.

A few weeks ago, I featured a story about airlines that think their customers are stupid. But what happens when customers think their fellow customers are so stupid that they deserve what they get?

Have we become our own worst enemies? Perhaps.

Airlines don’t seem to mind. They like stupid customers and they like it when you think of your fellow passenger as stupid. After all, money is money.

Who is right?

View Results

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • cowboyinbrla

    He’s not stupid for missing the fee language on the website.

    The friend is stupid for having bought a ticket on the shiftiest airline in America.

  • AAGK

    Is it ok to say no one is too dumb to be a passenger, but they can be too dumb to be an accountant?

  • JewelEyed

    Okay. So…why would you ask someone who is tech savvy ask who isn’t tech savvy to do something like this for another person who isn’t tech savvy? If the son-in-law had thought about this a little more, he’d have just printed the boarding pass to PDF and e-mailed it to someone to print *that* out instead of forcing someone else to wade through the Spirit website to print out the boarding pass. It would have taken less than 5 minutes and saved everyone a huge headache.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Wasn’t the son-in-law overseas?

  • JewelEyed

    And? All of that can be done online. All the person who is local has to do is open an e-mail, download the attachment, and print the attachment if you do what I just suggested.

  • Flywisely

    No one’s stupid. The system has become so unfriendly, so complicated, and full of gotchas. The government does not care.

  • KanExplore

    I’m confused. Right on the flight selection page, the only text in a large font at the top of the page says, “Our fares are fully unbundled. A ticket with us gets you and a personal item from A to B. We call this the Bare Fare. Additional charges for baggage, advance seat assignments and any changes apply only if you add these options. Fares listed are per person, are non-refundable and include all taxes and fees.”

    Is that so hard for a person to read and understand? I just wish we had Spirit in my market.

  • Alan Gore

    Cases like this point to the need to bring back travel agents. Flesh-and-blood local travel agents who will take care of all those details for the newbie traveler, or for the experienced traveler who wants to plan a complicated itinerary. Why did an entire line of business roll over and die as soon as experienced travelers could book their own weekend getaways on airline and hotel websites?

  • Don Spilky

    Because, Alan, in point of fact Brick and Mortar travel agents add very little value for the occasional traveler. Those very same travel agents make little to no effort to create a relationship, and so they get commoditized. Consumers don’t see the value add and then buy solely on price.

  • John Baker

    The “entire line of business roll[ed] over and die[d]” because the average American refused to pay for the additional service that a travel agent provides. Same reason that crappy airlines that provide even worse service get more travelers by charging $5 less…

  • LostInMidwest

    We should probably leave alone “too stupid to fly”. However, I do notice an unhealthy tendency swiping across the U.S. It seems like everybody needs to be able to do anything and when they do, they do it excellently by default so don’t you even dare telling them they have no clue what they are doing. It is way bigger problem than I am making it seem – but deeper discussion about it is also not for this Website.

    So, Chris, while people shouldn’t be considered too stupid to fly, a lot them actually are INCOMPETENT and we are expected to tell them what fantastic and erudite travelers they are. Sure thing, I will play the “empower the incompetence” game no problem – as long as we stop when the people in question are EMPLOYED to do something and they are doing it badly because they are too incompetent to do their jobs. It seems like comparing oranges and orangutans, but the fine line delimiting the two is getting blurrier, thinner and the differences between the two are vanishing quickly.

    The ultimate proof of the danger we are in when empowering “incompetence ueber alles!” I read this morning on a car blog. The woman in Florida “pulled over” a police officer that was speeding. Now, take a deep breath and think about it for a second …

    What she did was simply project her ineptness and incompetence to drive to the whole world around her, assumed everybody is just as incompetent as her (because nobody ever told her how much she sucks at driving) and then “did something about it”. Too bad that “something” wasn’t calling the driving school and signing up for classes …


    Use of the word stupid should be banned. I did not tolerate it when I was teaching and I have less tolerance for it now. He is not stupid for missing the small print. But he is unobservant, something we would not expect of an accountant. I have flown spirit once and it was pretty simple to print a boarding pass without paying for a thing. Rushing through an unfamiliar website caused the problems here and he should have slowed down when Spirit started wanting money. If you are not getting what you expect to see, Stop, go back and read.

  • Lindabator

    Hey, some of us are still out here! Frankly, client gets burned once, I have a loyal client for life! :)

  • Lindabator

    Not actually true — I find the millenials not only recognize the value, but the skills and service we offer — that nonrefundable ticket? I have been know to get it refunded, and do not have to jump through hoops, just know who to go to. The relationships I have with my clients grows daily, because they DO realize what I offer. I know not true for all agents, but you should interview potential agents just as you would a doctor or lawyer, until you get the right fit. :)

  • Lindabator

    Find that MANY (and especially younger clients) want the service, and the assurance that all will be taken care of in a case of emergency — guess it just left the best of us around to assist! HAHA!

  • Benjamin Barnett

    If something is going to cost you $110 and you don’t want to pay it, you wait and check with the people who are going to pay it. This one’s on the passenger. The fact that it’s an airline is irrelevant. And for God’s sake, read the whole screen where it says “skip this step.”

  • AJPeabody

    Especially when “Skip this step” is in a microscopic low contrast font at the very bottom of a page under a large empty area.

  • Michael__K

    Mr. Nesbitt needs to cancel the Spirit fare club membership (and save the proof that he did so) or Spirit will continue to prey on him and charge him again on the one year anniversary of this incident.

    If he feels he was misled into believing that these optional charges (for services which Spirit will never deliver) were mandatory, then he can contact his credit card company and see if they will process a chargeback.

  • Benjamin Barnett

    Bottom line, don’t spend $110 on someone when you don’t know if you’re going to get reimbursed. You can always go back and print the boarding pass later. A lesson in not making someone else’s problem your own.

  • jim6555

    Be careful what you wish for. Spirit is in my local market. Most people here know about the 28″ seat pitch, the plethora is fees and the terrible customer service. If I even suggested to my friends that I was thinking of taking Spirit for my next trip, they would call me ……..STUPID.

  • Kerr

    It all depends upon your needs. I’ve flown them for a couple of years and they run far less than United on the same routes. Once you know what routes (and seats) work for you, the savings can be significant.

  • Pegtoo

    Sorry, I must be slow today (but not stupid!!!)… wouldn’t it be the other way around? Southwest includes checked luggage for free… so aren’t more people willing to check and not drag it onboard?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha… gotcha! NOWHERE on that page does it say, “Please read this.” :-)

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! I thought it was just me. Thanks, Peg. :-)

  • flutiefan

    you would think, but… No.

  • Kerr

    On Southwest, the issue is time – carry-on vs. waiting for checked luggage. On Spirit, it is price – it is cheaper to check vs. carry-on. Hence on most Spirit flights there is plenty of space in the overhead bin as most folks want to pay less to check than to carry on!

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ohhhh… now I understand. I guess I AM too stupid to fly! :-)

  • John McDonald

    Spirit is just offering what people think they want, ie cheap.
    The masses demanded cheap.
    If you play by their rules, they are cheap.
    Catch is, people want cheap, but with all the “parsley”.
    Be very careful what you wish for.

  • cscasi

    But, there are many who do not want to pay you for the privilege of handling their travel needs as they feel they can handle them on their own and save money. Sometimes you can find cheaper deals for them and sometimes not any better than one can find for himself/herself. That said, good travel agents can sometimes do things like getting booked seating opened, get one a better deal on a cruise, etc. So, there are good points in using a travel agent if one Is willing to pay.

  • cscasi

    Many would not because they do not want for their bags to be delivered to the carousel. They are in too big of a hurry for whatever reason; checked bas free or not.

  • ChelseaGirl

    But Spirit does charge for luggage of any kind, so he would have had to pay that fee regardless, just not the advance seat assignment.

  • Anaheimskip

    Basically, per Spirit, they would prefer you check bags and not carry them on. Carrying on luggage slows boarding down big time. Many travelers spend time scouring for bin space. They will stop the aisle putting bags up, though I can put a bag in the bin and not be in the aisle. Spirit flights I’ve been on we’re finished boarding a good 20 min prior to departure (they start boarding earlier than most).

    Yes, Spirit charges for checked too. Ideally, Spirit would love if you only brought your under seat personal item on board and checked nothing. It’s the other issue — weight. The less fuel that is used, the better it is.

  • Anaheimskip

    They don’t change for your personal item. Go on Amazon and search Spirit personal item. It’s actually a decent sized bag and it works.

  • LonnieC

    In New York there are minimum size standards for written documents. Basically, if the type is too small to be read easily, it may not be enforceable. Why not a similar thing for computer wording on important documents, pages, subscriptions, etc.?

  • LonnieC

    And then we come to another problem. There should be some standardization of the layout of websites (have you ever searched for the “log off” X button?). It’s done for automobiles all the time. While there are hundreds of car manufacturers, they all place the steering wheel, accelerator, brake, directional signal stalk, etc., in essentially the same locations, because they’re all critically important. The same concept could apply to shopping and other important pages. Certain minimum type sizes, standard locations for essential information, clearly marked “buy” and “cancel” buttons, etc., would all help reduce confusion considerably. Some regulation seems essential.

  • ctporter

    I rent cars very often, and not all the controls are in the same place! Finding the gas cap release, or the trunk release on a rental car becomes a challenge at times. Figuring out how to open the trunk of a VW rabbit had 2 rental car lot guys and me totally stumped for 20 minutes once.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. That title was off-putting for me and when I see it used, I tend to look at more at the person(s) using it, rather than the person(s) it is targeted at. I think both sides here could have (or should have) done things differently. In no particular order, I think Spirit needs to perhaps present the fee-free option with better clarity. This does not say that they shouldn’t be permitted to ask the question or to present the up-sell, but I think that if there is a fee-free option, that it need to be fairly and reasonably presented. I also think the passenger/customer needs to fully – yes fully, like the fine print – what they are and are not agreeing to.

    Sure reading fine print is boring as all get out, but that is the legal disclosure or fine rules of the game that you really are agreeing to when you buy. So, I think you do have an obligation to read and understand exactly what it is when you click yes.

    Do I ever click yes without reading – sure I do. But I do with the acknowledgement that IF something goes sideways later on, if it was disclosed in that agreement I chose not to read, I must accept those consequences.. but, like I said earlier, I expect that the business fairly and reasonably present these facts to me in advance.

  • Fishplate

    So, I thought I’d try it out. PDX > LAS, random date a month out. sure enough, it was very clear that the fare was the fare, and as noted in a large box at the top of the page, that any other services were extra and optional.

    They did try to sell me a hotel room, a rental car, and a big David Copperfield show. I turned all those down, but hit a brick wall when I couldn’t proceed without joining some sort of club. At that point, I bailed out of the experiment…

  • LonnieC

    My point exactly. The car manufacturers have determined that certain “critical” controls should be located in the same place on all cars. I’ve also lost time trying to find out where a gas cap release is located. But that’s not a critical control. I’m just proposing that certain important elements of websites which involve a legal commitment (eg., purchasing something, opting in for something that costs money, etc.) be standardized, so that we can make better choices.

  • BMG4ME

    A CPA ought to have seen the small print, something they are usually paid to do.

  • Kerr

    Joining the club isn’t necessary. However you will have to enter information before proceeding to the final page.

  • Kerr

    Thanks. I knew I needed a new bag after April 1 and this will help in my search.

  • ChelseaGirl

    The site says “This is something like a small backpack or purse that fits entirely in the smaller sizer box.” There are very few people who can travel with just a backpack. My carry-on is quite small but I doubt it would fit.

  • Spirit is the ABSOLUTE WORST all around. Their website is poorly designed and misleading. You wind up paying the same as for a major airline flight, and you receive 1/10th of the service you’d expect for that cost. I flew them once … and they are on my personal “Do Not Fly” list now.

  • judyserienagy

    Only stupid part is booking this awful airline in the first place. The rest is unfamiliarity with their website and ignorance of their rules. No connection with stupid.

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