We gave up our seat on Spirit but they gave us nothing

Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com
Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com
Sarah Dragswiek and her family give up their airline seat in exchange for a promise of a refund and a voucher for a new ticket. But when the airline refuses to keep its word, what can they do?

Question: My husband, two-year-old son and I recently flew from Chicago to Phoenix on Spirit Airways. Before we took off, a flight attendant approached our seat to tell us that there was a problem with one of the seats, and that another passenger couldn’t use his seat. We were offered a refund of our son’s ticket and a free round trip voucher if we would hold our son on our lap in order to free a seat for the gentleman whose seat was not usable.

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We agreed to this, and the flight attendant and gate agent (who had boarded the plane to help resolve the situation) told us that we should talk with the gate agents when we landed in Phoenix to claim our refund and free voucher.

When we landed, we approached the gate agents. It was 1 a.m. and there weren’t many people working. A Spirit employee advised us to call the customer service number to figure out everything about our tickets. Because it was so late and there was no one else with whom we could speak, and we were traveling with an exhausted toddler, we accepted this.

The next evening I called the customer service line and was informed by both a representative and a supervisor that there was no record of the transaction that had occurred. In fact, the supervisor chastised me for giving up our son’s seat and told me that because he was over 24 months old it was against FAA regulations to hold him on our lap (which we knew, which was why we bought him a ticket in the first place), even though the flight attendants and gate agent had asked us to do so. We were eventually told to go back to the airport and try to speak with staff there to resolve this issue.

We tried speaking with Spirit on our return flight, but it was impossible to find someone who could help us. We’ve also tried sending emails to the airline. Nothing seems to be working. Can you persuade Spirit to keep its word? — Sarah Dragswiek, Minneapolis

Answer: Your story is troubling on many levels. First, there’s the problem of asking you to keep your two-year-old on your lap. The safest place for your son is in his own seat, and preferably strapped into a car seat. Most airlines require that kids older than two have their own seats, so if the tables had been turned, which is to say you showed up for a flight without a ticket for your son, then the airline might have forced you to pay for another ticket.

Talk is cheap. In the heat of the moment as the plane is boarding, promises are made and other employees down the line don’t always get the memo. So while the flight attendants were just trying to fix a problem, they ended up creating another problem by failing to give you a written assurance that you’d get a refund and a ticket voucher.

How could you have avoided this? It’s not easy. You said a gate agent boarded the flight to fix the problem. That agent could have given you a flight voucher and all the paperwork necessary for a refund. If you could do an instant replay, you might have asked for some kind of assurance in writing.

Once you stepped off that plane, Spirit handled your case about the way I’d expect it. No one except the gate agent knew about the promise, so Spirit turned you down. How frustrating.

If someone ever asks you to give up your son’s seat again, be sure to let that employee know he’s over two and is required to have his own seat. And remember, you can always say “no” when you’re asked to move. They’re your seats — you paid for them.

I contacted Spirit on your behalf. It refunded your seat and sent you the voucher it had promised.

Should Sarah Dragswiek have believed Spirit?

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71 thoughts on “We gave up our seat on Spirit but they gave us nothing

  1. i would usually side with the company; such as when a customer says “but the call center rep promised me a free blah blah, etc…I want the company to hold up it’s promise!”

    but the fact that the flight attendant TOOK AWAY something is just wrong.

    It would be like if a you had the last PS4 in the Walmart, and after you paid, on the way to your car a Walmart employee came up to you and said “there is a poor little boy with cancer who really wanted to use a Ps4 once before he dies. Can he have the one you already paid for? We will give you a coupon for a new one AND a free game.”

    1. I wouldn’t even have helped the OP. Once you book on Spirit, you give up any expectation of honesty, integrity or service. This one is all on the OP.

      Why on earth would anybody believe anything that Spirit says? I bet you’re going to be hearing back from the OP when (1) the credit never shows up and (2) the voucher can only be used on the sixth Tuesday of a month ending in the letter ‘X’.

      My take on it is that booking on Spirit is like betting on Black 8 – a low percentage bet that you’ll be happy with the outcome and a much higher percentage bet that you’ll be unhappy and disappointed.

      1. Maybe it was OPs first time with Spirit, which is an outlier as far as being dishonest and conniving. Now she knows better.

      2. I think that in any business, honesty and integrity should be a given for both business and customer. Yes, the OP could and should have taken more steps to protect themselves. But that doesn’t mean that Spirit didn’t have an obligation to follow through on the original promise. The fact that they gave in and gave a refund (which airlines, esp. Spirit, almost never do) and sent a voucher leads me to believe that they knew what they had promised and for whatever reason (doesn’t have to be malicious) didn’t follow through. This is the exact kind of case that Chris should focus his time on energy on, making sure that companies follow through on their end. Not helping people who buy non-refundable tickets and then want special treatment.

  2. If it was a number of other airlines, I might have done something similar to the OP. But Spirit is a foul, venomous viper. I wouldn’t give up one penny based on their no-good word. Glad you were able to help them. The FA and GA should also be reprimanded by the FAA.

      1. Doesn’t undercover boss rely on the boss wanting to improve things or otherwise get good PR? Spirit clearly isn’t interested in any of that.

  3. This is definitely one of those times times when I’m using the video function on my phone to capture the promise. Especially given that Spirit’s history is to stick it to their customer base whenever possible …

    1. Be careful, though. There have been cases where a passenger’s video recording something (say an altercation between an FA and a PAX) has been used as an excuse to throw them off the plane.

      1. Before I’m giving up my seat since they’re asking me for a favor, I’d ask them to record it. Not a in their face nasty move. A “I’ve heard about Spirit Corporate declining to support promises made by gate agents and FA, would you mind if I videoed your promise so I have a record of it.” If they decline, I decline and I’ll take the bump pay.

    2. it’s an FAR that you cannot record inflight personnel on the aircraft, even if you have permission. not sure about the gate agent.

  4. Why did they give up the seat in the first place. Although I think Spirit was wrong in this case the travelers knew better. I think they just got greedy.

    1. We had the exact same experience on SleazyJet from Geneva to Amsterdam. Our daughter was only 18 months but we booked a seat for her anyway. The FA came by and said we had to hold her in our lap because they overbooked the flight and needed the seat, and they’d refund our R/T ticket price.

      We said, “No, that’s why we booked her a seat” and the F/A ‘insisted’ that we HAD to comply with her request. We said, ‘no, we’re now sitting in our assigned seats and we’re not giving one of our seats up because we don’t feel it’s safe. After a bunch of back and forth, they eventually gave up and had to pay denied boarding compensation to somebody.

      Bottom line – the airline wants you to give up your seat so they can save money. But really, if you didn’t want your seat, you wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.

  5. Promise me something and give it to me now or I am not giving up anything.

    I would happily change seats or whatever when offered something like the OP was offered. But I have had enough experiences with airlines to know to never accept their word on anything.

    1. Sometimes there isn’t much of a choice but to trust what you’re
      told on the plane. In December I was flying home on AA from CDG to SFO through ORD. I had used miles for Business/First for the entire trip, which also included Amman, Jordan, a few weeks earlier—so lots of flying without any problems so far. I took my FC seat in ORD and a few minutes later the gate agent stood at the front of the plane, screeched at me by name (I was in row 5 of 6) and ordered me off the plane because I wasn’t checked in. Obviously I had checked in; I had just flown from Paris and my boarding pass worked just fine getting me on the plane in ORD. Apparently, there was a glitch at the CDG end of things and a man, one half of a couple, also had my seat so the GA told me to get off the plane. Eventually, while discussing the matter in the jet way (actually, while the GA continued screeching at me in the jet way like I was a stow-away or something—I am not making this up, she was truly screeching), I was told I could take the last remaining seat on the flight, 20B (yes, it’s a middle seat). The GA told me she’d have my miles put back on my account. I said I’d wait while they got the miles thing sorted out and at that point the GA threatened to call the police if I didn’t leave right now. Since it had already been a very long day and I didn’t want to wait another several hours for the next flight, which may or may not have had a FC seat available, I took 20B and the GA’s word that my FC miles would be restored. They weren’t, of course, but I
      penned a polite letter and followed all of Chris’ instructions on his site,
      sent it to the Customer Service folks (cc’d a CS manager listed at Chris’ site but not a VP or anything) and four weeks later got a response, my FC miles and an extra 25K miles (I asked only that my miles be restored). Frankly, the GA should have been fired for her behavior (not relocating me, the way she treated me) but there’s nothing I can do about that. Seriously, I don’t know how some people keep their jobs. I know I wouldn’t be able to if I treated one of my company’s customers that way. But that’s for a different Chris column.

  6. DId anybody ever tell the OP’s that airlines lie? Get that plane away from the gate on time! I agree that the Airline violated FAA rules by removing a 2 year old from a seatbelt. I agree that the clients were conned. I believe that people are naturally cheap, so they use the CHEAP airlines like Allegiant and Spirit. How bad are they? Don’t test the waters…..don’t fly them. I would contact the FAA over this one and file a complaint based upon safety.

    1. And say what to the FAA? That although they knew it was against regs since they did buy their child a seat they did it anyway? I don’t think beign complicit in violating rules is something to admit. The airline should not have asked, but they did, and the OP agreed, knowing full well it was wrong. They did it to get something out of it.

      1. While you are correct that the passenger was complicit in violating the rules, the primary culpability is with Spirit. They are an airline for Christ’s sake, and their employees are supposed to be professionals. Passengers are not. Whatever her primary motivation was, it could be argued that she also helped out a fellow passenger who otherwise wouldn’t have made the flight. In what world is a passenger supposed to be held to the same professional standards as a travel provider?

        While I would never do what the OP did, I would raise hell if I was conned out of promise. Call me vengeful, but I would do my best to hurt them. I would complain to FAA, report it to the media, and file a lawsuit with a small-claim court among other things. All at the same time.

      2. “I was under the impression that 2 year olds are required to have their own seat, but the Spirit employee assured me that it was fine for him to sit in my lap, and offered me compensation to do so.” easily releases culpability on the OP. i’m an airline employee myself, and i’d report something like that if i saw it. i reported my own airline to managers once, as I was on a plane with what was clearly NOT a lap child (literally, she was as tall as the seats when standing).

        1. I don’t fully believe the OP here, just my opinion. If you were to ask the employee bluntly ‘But isn’t that against the law’ I truly doubt they’d waive it off. Remember, this is also Spirit and they don’t care about the dude with a broken seat or the safety of that child. That is your child and its life and well being is your responsibility. Not an employee of Spirit. But let’s say they did say yep, no worries, just break the law this one time; does that make it right? You know it is the law but you are willing to hear what you want to get something out of it.

      3. I doubt that the FAA has any jurisdiction over the passengers at this juncture, whereas they have jurisdiction over both the company and the flight personnel.

  7. No way would I have given up my son’s seat when he was a toddler. Not only because it’s safer he have his own seat, but for my own sanity on the flight. I always bought my boys their own seats, even when they were infants. So much easier then trying to hold them for hours.

  8. Spirit really dropped the ball here. What is good, is that the FA seemed nice and generous, but like usual, Spirit screwed up. Chris, I am so glad we have someone like you to help people like this OP.

  9. Spirit Airlines to be believed? Around 15% of those responding must be living in caves to think Spirit can be believed. Crazy.

    But then again, consumers have choices. These passengers chose to fly Spirit. Should they have been surprised about a broken promise? Hardly. So the poll should have another question altogether: Should anyone flying Spirit expect customer satisfaction?

    1. It just isn’t Spirit.
      I quit flying United because of their poor customer service that just seemed to increase exponentially once they merged with Continental.

      1. While I respect your anecdotal experiences, I must defer to the Better Business Bureau which has not given Spirit a rating (A+ to F) based on its rules. However, the BBB notes of the thousands of written complaints to it in the past three years, “On June 24, 2013, BBB again reviewed the complaints on file and found the pattern of complaints has not been eliminated.”

        – See more at: http://www.bbb.org/south-east-florida/business-reviews/airlines/spirit-airlines-in-miramar-fl-21000543/complaints#sthash.xfi27JH2.dpuf

    2. I know people that will try their best to fly Spirit first. Then again, they’re the cheapest SOBs you’ll ever meet and they live in a trailer.

  10. If an airline promises a voucher, refund, anything, I want such thing in my hands before I finish the interaction with the employee that promised it. If that isn’t possible, I want a written promise with that employees signature and employee number. Kind of like when I get asked to switch seats, esp. when I paid extra for the seats. I say that the customer can give me money directly, or I’ll take a written promise from the FA for a refund. If it comes down to a he said, she said, the customer will usually lose. Sad, but true.

  11. I am appalled that an airline, even Spirit, would so flagrantly violate FAA regulations.
    This should be reported (and probably will be since it is now public) and the airline should be fined. And I am equally appalled that parents would agree to this. Would they have considered this in a crowded car/SUV? Probably not. I do not care how concerned they might have been about another person missing their flight, the safety of their child should have been their first concern. It is time that the FAA requires all travelers, regardless of age, to have a seat. Spirit should have immediately given what this family was promised but that does not, by any means, lessen the major violation of FAA rules. Nor does it excuse the parents’ complete lack of regard for their child’s safety.

    1. My first concern was the blatant disregard for safety and FAA regs by Spirit, not to mention the OP. Where else does this incur in their operation?

  12. Spirit might be the RyanAir of the United States, or pretty damn close. They will never get the chance to piss me off because I will never take them. It’s too bad that Sarah wasn’t able to somehow get the local news media involved with this because Spirit deserves to have its name dragged through the mud for allowing an FAA regulation to be violated and a passenger’s safety to be compromised. Just when I thought they couldn’t do any worse, I hear another story where they manage to outdo themselves. Unbelievable.

      1. Agreed! The value of that child’s safety and life has now been determined by it’s parents as the price of his ticket, plus another future flight. Shameful.

      2. None of us actually saw what happened, but I’m under the impression that the flight attendant didn’t give her much of a choice in the matter. I suppose she could have held her ground against the flight attendant and refused to do it for any amount of compensation (then the flight attendant might kick her off the plane for being “uncooperative”) or asked to be rebooked, but that might not have been an option for her either.

      3. You can’t fault the OP for trying to do the charitable thing. Clearly the implication was that if the pax with the broken seat had not been accommodated by the OP, he would have been kicked off the flight. A natural sense of empathy, not “greed” was behind the OP’s decision to give up his child’s seat.

  13. Strangely enough, my experience flying Spirit was nowhere near as bad as some would think. I rather liked it, although pretty much nothing went wrong. I suppose the going wrong part is where one gets a better idea of good or bad customer service.

    About the only thing that would have gotten us was that out bag was about 1.5 lbs more than their (ridiculously low) 40 lbs check-in weight. So I think no problem – can take something out and stuff it in our personal item bag. The counter agent said don’t worry and we weren’t charged for an overweight bag, which would have been something like $100 if they insisted on charging for it.

    Everything went smoothly. With their policy of charging more for carry-on, there were few such bags (I’d estimate less than 10 on the entire full flight) and no fighting over bin space. We didn’t get bogged down with numerous people blocking the aisle . The plane was clean. The employees were professional, although their constant selling of the Spirit credit card was a little bit unusual. And most importantly, the plane loaded extremely quickly, left the gate early, and even took off before the scheduled departure time. When they’re well known for cracking the whip, most people learn that they can’t try to get exceptions.

  14. I have never flown Spirit but, after reading all of the comments, I can assure you I won’t ever. That’s how customer service works.

  15. “Most airlines require that kids older than two have their own seats”. No. Every single airline that operates in the U.S. is mandated by the FAA that any child aged 2 years & 0 days and older is required to have their own seat. This is not “most” and this is not an airline-by-airline policy. It’s the law.

    Perhaps those more familiar with international travels can enlighten me as to whether that’s true worldwide.

    Now, don’t get me started on the airlines who don’t require parents to provide proof of age for their “lap baby”. They just take their word for it. My airline is very stringent in this requirement for a birth certificate/item of record that proves the birthdate of the infant, and it causes all sorts of havoc when the parents don’t have it. “I’ve never been asked for that before” is on constant repeat. Perhaps those companies don’t mind risking an FAA fine for non-compliance with a regulation, but we don’t. Just bring it, people.

    1. The inconsistency of the request for proof is the biggest deal. Southwest is explicit. Show us proof when you check in (and you’re required to check in at the airport if flying with a lap child even if already checked in online). However, I don’t like it when they say that a photocopy of a birth certificate is their requirement. I asked specifically, and they will accept anything that’s official, including state-issued photo ID (you can get one for a newborn in California) or a passport. We personally used a US Passport Card.

      1. they (SWA) don’t say only a birth certificate photocopy is required. roomie works there, and i thought the website just said “proof of age”?
        BC, shot record, insurance card if it has the DOB, state IDs, kids IDs issued from local police stations, passports, etc are all approved. many times nowadays, supervisors will approve of a texted pic of the BC or something official, if it was perhaps left at home and someone has access to it, so they can send it to the parents.
        and i thank you for complying and understanding! some people are so mean and nasty when we ask for the proof.

        1. I understand they will accept any number of IDs (even some that aren’t specifically IDs) but I’m saying the confusions comes from this:


          If you choose to travel with your infant on your lap (at no additional charge) the infant will not need a boarding pass; however, you will need to obtain a Boarding Verification Document (BVD) for the infant. The BVD will allow the infant to board the aircraft. BVDs are available at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on the day of travel. In order to complete your BVD, the Customer Service Agent will need to verify that your infant has not reached his/her second birthday, so be sure to bring along a copy of your infant’s birth certificate.

          They don’t specifically say that it’s all they accept, but it might lead some to believe that it’s all they’ll accept.

        2. OK – my last post went into the moderation queue since I included a link to the SWA website, so here’s what they have on there:

          If you choose to travel with your infant on your lap (at no additional charge) the infant will not need a boarding pass; however, you will need to obtain a Boarding Verification Document (BVD) for the infant. The BVD will allow the infant to board the aircraft. BVDs are available at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on the day of travel. In order to complete your BVD, the Customer Service Agent will need to verify that your infant has not reached his/her second birthday, **so be sure to bring along a copy of your infant’s birth certificate**.

          1. aha! good to know! i truly thought they just made a general “proof of age” statement. thank you for the info!

          2. I think officially their procedures probably say that it can be any number of documents. However, their website is probably the first thing that people see when they research taking a lap infant on Southwest. At first glance, it sounds like a copy of a birth certificate is the only acceptable document.

            I’ve seen stuff from other airlines stating that a lap infant has to be declared ahead of time by calling in to a specific phone number. Others say that they reserve the right to ask for proof of age before the flight, but they may not consistently check for it.

            Of course incomplete or less than clear requirements for ID can be an issue. We’ve heard of the inconsistencies in the use of birth certificate copies as proof of citizenship for closed loop cruises. In those cases, a photocopy is supposed to be acceptable. I’ve heard of people who thought they could use a photocopy of a birth certificate to get a passport, while the State Dept requires an actual certified copy rather than a photocopy of one.

          3. yep, and that’s been true for 30 years. (as i found out to my cost)
            a dear friend had to fly SW to pick up her 25 mo daughter after a family emergency, and was not allowed to board a SW flight from ELP to DAL. (yeah, she knew she was trying to stretch the age limit by a month, and board the child as a lap child, but they were denied boarding.) So they were stranded and i got the emergency phone call to help them get another flight on AA from ELP to DFW – SW refunded the original (prepaid) fare, but my friend didn’t have the extra money for the second ticket for her daughter. that wasn’t a fun night, as i not only had to pay the extra fare, but pick them up at DFW instead of DAL – much longer trip.

          4. I certainly understand that the airlines don’t treat this like maybe an amusement park might look the other way regarding a kid being just past the age where they charge for admission or charge more for admission. I take Amtrak sometimes with my kid, and I don’t claim that my kid is less than 2; the regular child fare is half the adult fare and there can be additional discounts (AAA). I remember joking about actually paying my kid’s fare with a conductor once, and he was (only half joking) that he remembered some repeat passengers who claimed that the same kid was less than 2 for over 3 years.

            To the airlines, this is closer to the age for buying alcohol. An airline doesn’t want to be caught because it’s not their own rules that they’re enforcing. Technically a child doesn’t need any ID to fly domestic in the US, unless it’s a lap infant, and then only to prove that the kid is actually underage.

    2. and even though you all agree SWA is explicit in this regard, Roomie says at least once a week — and this is at only 1 airport! — they get someone complaining that they didn’t bring the proof and SWA wants to charge them. this is when it’s not clearly an infant who is obviously under 2, this is those “borderline” cases, where you honestly can’t tell. and Roomie says if the parents later submit the receipt with the proof to their Customer Relations department, they almost always get a refund if the child is indeed under 2.
      but really, with so many people failing to bring them (and me at my job) the proof, it seems that no matter how explicit the airline is, people don’t comply.

  16. Spirit makes GreyHound appear upscale. Op did everything correct, except believing Spirit. They’re not known for their customer friendly policies.

    1. These people willingly and knowingly put their child at risk and broke the law for a promise of something free. I hope their child never hears of this.

        1. I see your point and I think I know you are not saying Spirit said do this or get off the plane. Even if they had, they still had an option. Spirit didn’t have them break the law or endanger their child. They did that on their own, by choice.

          1. Dangle the carrot and the horse bites. Horse might never get the carrot, but still is enticing. Spirit dangle a refund and voucher, and op bit. Of course, the OP knowingly broke FAA rules and so did Spirit. Spirit got what they wanted but the OP, until Chris intervened, walked away empty handed.

  17. Of course the word never got down the line. The flight attendant and gate agent would then be admitting that they asked you to do something illegal.

  18. She should definitely be allowed to review the accommodations. And construction was not the only issue. The condition of the apartment and the furnishings should come into play. I do think, in fairness, she should make mention that she did receive a full refund. I actually think since they stayed there, it was pretty generous.
    I would hate to think that anyone else would be “taken”.

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