Lied to, overcharged and almost abandoned by Spirit Airlines

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By Christopher Elliott

Noreen Ismail seemed to have an airtight case against Spirit Airlines. Its transgressions against her, her husband, and 11-month old included overcharging her for her carry-on luggage. They abondened her in Boston and making promises it never intended to keep.

Spirit turned her down after reviewing her case, and my involvement isn’t likely to overturn its decision. But before I file this into my “case dismissed” folder, let’s have a look at why a problem that like such a good candidate for compensation came up empty.

Let’s begin with Ismail’s flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Boston in late last year. Before the family departed they phoned Spirit to find out if they’d need to make any special arrangements for their toddler.

One carry-on bag at no additional charge

“A customer service representative informed me that we were allowed one carryon bag each at no additional charge. It included my 11 month old son,” she says. “But when I arrived at the airport to check in I was told different. They would not allow me and my family to board the plane unless I paid for my carryon luggage.”

Ismail reluctantly paid $38 to carry her bag on the plane. Spirit is the only U.S. airline to charge passengers to carry on their luggage. It is particularly troubling when the fee is imposed on someone who clearly has no choice in the matter, like a mother with a young child who probably needs to be fed and changed during the flight. (Related: Want an airline to change? Then speak with a million voices.)

The family tried to call Spirit when they landed in Boston to complain about the charge. A charge they were told they wouldn’t have to worry about. But they couldn’t reach anyone. Spirit outsourced its call center operations to India a few years ago. Reaching someone by phone is difficult; reaching someone who can understand the nature of your complain is even more difficult, some customers say.

The return flight was the worst part

But as with so many problems I write about on this site, all isn’t as it appears to be. The worst part was the return flight. Ismail called before their departure to verify their flight details. Everything checked out.

When I arrived at the airport I was told the flight was delayed three hours. Hours and hours went by and we were left in the dark not knowing what was going to happen. Finally, they told us the flight had been canceled and that they were issuing refunds to everyone and offering two roundtrip tickets as the compensation package.

AirAdvisor is a claims management company. We fight for air passenger rights in cases of flight disruptions all over the world. Our mission is to ensure that air passengers are fairly compensated for the inconvenience and frustration caused by delays, cancellations, or overbooking.

But just before they paid JetBlue a pricey one-way walk-up fare to get back home, a Spirit representative agreed to rebook the family on another flight.

The rep gave us no option — he just booked us a flight back home on another carrier.

We made it clear that we were getting the short end of the stick and preferred to just book our own ticket with another airline and take the compensation package like everyone else.

We were quite upset, so he stated he would get us a round trip ticket each for everything we had gone through.

We asked for something in writing, since at this point we didn’t believe anything that this airline told us. He said he could not provide us anything in writing and we had to run to catch the flight he just booked for us.

Once they returned to Florida, she called about the two free roundtrip tickets. Turns out there were no tickets, just two $50 travel vouchers. And there was no refund. (Here’s our guide to surviving a long flight in economy class and avoiding jet lag.)

“Basically, they lied to us again and we had no recourse and nothing in writing,” she says.

I suggested getting something in writing. I recommended she send a brief, polite email to the airline asking it to honor its oral agreement with her family.

Here’s Spirit Airlines’ response:

Our mission is to operate as closely to our flight schedules as possible. We certainly make a concerted effort to operate on time and when we do not, it is because all efforts to do so have been exhausted.

We can certainly understand your frustration and recognize the inconvenience this can cause to travel plans. At times, airlines need to make changes because of weather patterns, mechanical issues, better organization for the passengers, and overall safety.

I am sorry the delay and cancellation of your December 27, 2011 Boston flight was inconvenient for you and your family. Please note the safety of our valued passengers and crew members is our priority. When we make a decision to ground a flight, it is done with careful consideration.

My advocacy team and I receive complaints about airline overcharges often. Spirit also links to its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between the airline and its customers, presumably as a way of saying: We followed our own rules. (Related: What should you do when an airline overcharges you for luggage?)

It’s obviously a form letter. But if you spend a little time on Spirit’s site, you’ll see that the carry-on charge is legit (immoral, perhaps, but it’s clearly disclosed). And if you accept the airline’s return flight — even if you don’t want to — it owes you nothing. So the $50 vouchers were more than Spirit had to pay Ismail.

If Spirit owed her anything, it was a more thorough explanation of why she had to pay for her carry-on item even though a phone agent assured her she didn’t have to. And we can thank her for helping the rest of us understand that if Spirit promises you anything, get it in writing.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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