Spirit’s Baldanza: “We don’t force customers to pay for services they don’t want or need”

Spirit's Ben Baldanza. / Photo courtesy Spirit.
Spirit Airlines is at it again — first denying a dying war veteran a ticket refund, then announcing it would raise its fee for carrying a bag on its flight to $100. Passengers are outraged. A Facebook petition to boycott the carrier is gaining momentum.

At a time like this, I like to hand the mike over to Ben Baldanza, the airline’s CEO. I did this morning, but his handlers said he couldn’t answer my questions by phone. Here’s a transcript of our awkward email interview.

Ben, there’s a lot of talk about the $100 carry-on charge that’s taking effect this fall. I understand fuel prices are high, but does it cost Spirit $100 to transport a carry-on bag?

We don’t want any of our customers to wait until they get to the boarding gate to pay for their carry-on bags as this delays the boarding process for everyone. We expect that our new $100 fee charged for those who wait until they get to the gate will ensure that customers purchase their bags before arriving at the gate.

Our new bag fees, which go into effect November 6, 2012, have a simplified pricing structure with the same price for both domestic and international travel. International checked bag fees are lower.

Our pricing continues to offer customers savings and time at the airport if they book their bags in advance on spirit.com. By encouraging self-service, Spirit is able to lower our costs and pass those savings along to customers by way of low fares.

What’s the reaction been to your decision, and what do you make of it?

Baldanza did not respond to this question.

You’ve been critical of the Transportation Department’s new airfare regulations, which require better disclosure on fees and compel airlines to quote an “all-in” fare that includes taxes — you say they force airlines to hide taxes. Is this decision a reaction to the regulation?

The latest DOT fare rules mandate airlines to hide the government’s taxes and fees in the fare.

We believe that the better form of transparency is to break out costs so customers know exactly what they are buying. Customers have a right to know how much of their fare goes toward government taxes and fees rather than hiding it in the fare.

How important are ancillary revenues generated from baggage fees and other items to your business model? What should your passengers know about Spirit’s business model, and how it differs from full service, legacy carriers?

Spirit offers the most consumer-friendly model because we offer ultra low fares and give customers the option to choose the add-ons they want and they only pay for those they want/use. Unlike many other airlines, we don’t force customers to pay for services they don’t want or need.

I wanted to ask you about rules and when they should be waived. You had a passenger, Jerry Meekins, who made some news over the weekend when he asked for a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, and was turned down. Is there ever a time when an airline should bend its rules? And if so, when?

We care about each and every one of our millions of customers. We help them all save money with our low fares and the option to choose the add-on they want, and they only pay for those they choose.

We receive many requests every day from customers facing unexpected situations. Many customers take advantage of the affordable travel insurance we offer to cover a variety of unexpected situations that may arise. In fairness to all of our customers, we don’t make exceptions to our policies.

Note: I was disappointed by these canned answers from Baldanza, and because of my tight deadline, I had no opportunity to follow up to them.

I’ve seen this before — back in 2002, legacy airlines like the now-defunct Northwest instituted a policy of “no waivers, no favors” in a foolish attempt to boost revenues. It just upset customers.

I think consumers deserve better responses than those Baldanza has offered. I hope he’ll agree to answer for his recent decisions in the near future. Meantime, I hope he doesn’t mind a little criticism. He’s got it coming.

Update (5/4): A few hours after this interview was published, Spirit reversed course, offering Meekins a full refund.

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