Want an airline to change? Then speak with a million voices

If you don't change you could end up here. / Photo by jwm 1049 - Flickr
When it comes to customer service, travel companies constantly push the limits with fees, surcharges and onerous policies. No industry does it more than the airlines, and no domestic airline does it more than Spirit Airlines, the small Florida-based carrier known for its risque ads and creative extras.

But consider what happened to Spirit last week, when the carrier made two decisions that drew an immense amount of publicity, much of it unexpected.

Within a few news cycles, it denied a dying war veteran a refund on a ticket he couldn’t use, standing its ground because the ticket was nonrefundable. It also quietly raised its fees for carry-on luggage (that’s right, carry-on luggage) to as much as $100, effective this fall.

It’s difficult to overstate the public reaction. A Facebook petition to boycott Spirit mushroomed, garnering more than 40,000 “likes.” Air travelers slammed the carrier as heartless and greedy.

Can you guess which of those issues Spirit relented on?

No, not the carry-on fees. It fully refunded Jerry Meekins’s fare. “I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country,” a contrite Ben Baldanza, Spirit’s chief executive, said in a prepared statement. He made a $5,000 contribution in Meekins’s name to a charity for disabled veterans.

Spirit is hardly the first airline to back down after crossing a line. Just a few days after the Meekins incident, United Airlines changed its policy on transporting dogs after the owner of a pit bull collected more than 45,000 protest signatures online. Jessie Huart blasted United for banning some dogs from flying based on their breed, essentially suggesting that they were pet racists. United relented, issuing a brief statement that it will “now accept previously restricted breeds of dogs.”

What made Spirit — what makes any airline, for that matter — reverse a decision? The answer raises some troubling issues, not only for summer air travelers but also for government regulators.

An airline will often back down in the face of unanimous opposition to one of its policies. But the reaction to Spirit’s announcement about higher carry-on fees wasn’t unanimous. Beginning Nov. 6, the airline will raise most of its nine carry-on bag fees by either $5 or $10, and one — for carry-ons that are declared at the gate — will leap from $45 to $100. Many passengers and TV talking heads were angry, but some air travelers supported the idea. “I think Spirit is on the right track with its carry-on fee,” says Joan Mohan, an instructor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “Watching people competing for overhead space is annoying and time-consuming.”

Most Spirit customers know that the airline bases its business model on fees, and they seem prepared to accept it. Despite its reputation as a complaint factory, Spirit drew only 58 formal grievances to the Transportation Department in February, the latest month for which numbers are available. That’s far more than it should have, considering how small it is, but nowhere near the numbers some of its critics had suggested. The previous month, it had drawn 59 grievances. (I keep an informal tally of such complaints; Spirit’s numbers are high but in line with those of other discount airlines with a thing for fees.)

Contrast the mixed reaction to the fee increase with the widespread public outrage over Meekins. His predicament pushed a lot of hot buttons: He’s a Vietnam veteran and a cancer patient. After he bought a nonrefundable ticket to visit his daughter, doctors reportedly told him that he was terminally ill and shouldn’t fly.

You’d think that Spirit would refund his fare out of compassion. A day before Baldanza changed his mind, I asked him to explain his reasoning for not okaying a refund. He delivered a terse response by e-mail. “In fairness to all of our customers,” he wrote, “we don’t make exceptions to our policies.”

I followed up with him after he changed his mind, asking him to explain his reversal, and the response was even terser: no comment.

Clearly, public pressure had prevailed.

Another hot-button topic is pets. I recently wrote a column for National Geographic Traveler in which I suggested that readers should leave their dogs and cats at home when they go on vacation.

The reactions were predictable. “Young children traveling with their parents are a lot more disturbing than any animal could possibly be,” sniffed Cheryl Gray, a retired flight attendant, who referred to her dog as “part of our family.”

The passion of pet owners explains the success of Huart’s dog petition, which had the added backing of the social advocacy site Change.org. When a petition can attract more than 40,000 supporters — even if they aren’t likely customers — it will get an airline’s attention.

All this is sobering news to passengers who may be under the mistaken impression that their airline is actually listening to them, and it’s downright depressing for regulators who are trying to fix the problem of bad airline service.

For air travelers and consumer groups, it means that they’ll need the right mix of demographics, timing and critical mass to effect any kind of meaningful change on a policy level. It’s a tall order that requires cooperation and coordination, not to mention a lot of work.

Now that the Transportation Department has postponed its latest round of proposed airline consumer rules until after the election, and with air travelers still lacking a consistently unified voice in Washington, the chances that any real change will take place during the busy summer travel season seem distant at best.

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