This Spirit Airlines flight disaster should never have happened

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By Christopher Elliott

The $50 voucher Spirit Airlines offered Suzanne Marra for her troubles may have expired, but her anger is undiminished. And I really can’t blame her.

On Christmas Eve, Marra was supposed to fly from Atlantic City to Fort Myers, Fla. Spirit canceled her flight under questionable circumstances and then offered her two terrible options: a full refund or a flight on Dec. 31.

That’s right, Spirit wanted to fly her to Florida a full eight days later.

Just as a reminder, this feature is called Should I Take The Case?, in which I present an unvetted case from a reader and ask you if I should advocate for the consumer.

Today’s story isn’t really about Spirit.

It’s about laws that allow airlines to do pretty much anything they want, short of crashing their aircraft into a mountainside. Other countries have rules and regulations that would prevent an airline from walking away from what customers assume are its contractual obligations — to fly them from point “A” to point “B” on schedule — but not in the United States.

No airline seems to take advantage of this regulatory loophole more than Spirit, but other airlines do it, too.

Marra didn’t find out about her cancellation until she arrived at the airport. “I received the email at 3:41 p.m. for a flight that was to depart at 5:37,” she remembers.

At the counter, a mob of angry passengers had gathered. They were “upset and yelling.” For additional security, someone had called in several state troopers.

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Why was the flight canceled?

The plane didn’t have a crew, she says.

I was told we had two options: Get in one line to get your money back or in another line to re-book for December 31st.

This was followed by an announcement on the intercom system which said the same and added, “Don’t take it out on the agents, it’s not our fault!”

OK, but you are the representatives of the company, so I think it was somewhat appropriate for the upset passengers to express their frustration.

The scene was utter chaos.

Many people were shouting that Spirit ruined Christmas. Some were crying and saying that all of their gifts for the kids were in Florida and how were they going to tell their kids that Santa didn’t come to their house?

Kids were crying and other people walked around in a daze. I overheard one dad say, ‘Let’s get in the car, we are driving’.”

Marra paid a $338 walk-up fare on JetBlue from New York and got to Fort Myers in time for the holidays, but she didn’t let Spirit off the hook. She sent the airline an email, asking it to take responsibility for stranding her in Atlantic City. She told her story to the Press of Atlantic City. (Related: A mostly true fish story with a truly unfortunate ending.)

Here’s how Spirit responded:

I’m truly sorry to hear that your past experience was unpleasant. I can’t begin to imagine your frustration.

As much as we hate them, there are times when delays and cancellations can’t be avoided. I see that your flight was affected by crew issues. I’m sorry this happened. During a delay like this information may be limited and what we do know may change.

When a flight is canceled, the options available are re-accommodation on the next available flight. If this is not feasible a refund is offered. Our records reflect you opted to receive a refund of the affected segment. I’ve confirmed your refund of $73.09 was issued to the original form of payment. Once a refund is issued, we are no longer responsible for your travel.

As you mentioned, a $50 Future Travel Voucher was issued. Future Travel Vouchers are valid for 60 days from the date of issue. Travel does not have to be completed by the expiration date, however, travel must be booked by then. For example you can book travel for September 30, 2015 using your voucher, as long as it is booked by February 22, 2015.

I’m sorry you’re disappointed with the level of compensation you received. Please understand that after reviewing your case, this is the compensation we’re able to offer you.

I’m glad you contacted us, as it gives us a chance to look into how we’ve performed and work to improve our service in the future. I’ve shared your concerns with the General Manager of the Atlantic City station for review and ongoing training purposes. I hope you’ll consider traveling with us again. I know that everyone at Spirit is working hard to ensure that your future experiences with us are positive from beginning to end. If you do encounter any issues, be sure to contact our Customer Support team by e-mail.

In other words, not our problem. We can’t control our crew, and besides, this is all legal. So go away. (Here is our guide on what to do when the flight has been canceled or delayed).

Marra is mystified

She’s been flying on Spirit for two decades, is a $9 Fare Club member, and knows all of Spirit’s odd rules inside and out. Yet she can’t wrap her head around this one.

As far as she’s concerned, Spirit should have transported her to Fort Myers as promised. If it couldn’t, it should have endorsed her ticket to an airline that could. And if it couldn’t do that, it should cover the cost difference between the walk-up fare and the refund of her segment.

Ah, but that’s not how it works. Our laissez-faire regulations allow an airline to cancel a domestic flight for any reason and to offer either a refund or to rebook you on a flight of the airline’s choice — even if it’s more than a week away.

Did Spirit think Marra would just wait around the airport for eight days?

My advocacy team and I can take this case. We can contact Spirit on Marra’s behalf and try to get more compensation. But the real problem isn’t the airline; it’s the loosey-goosey regulations that allow an air carrier to get away with this. Marra’s flight disaster should never have happened.

Should I take Suzanne Marra's case?

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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