Spirit Airlines: What it's like to fly America's most profitable airline

What's it like to fly Spirit Airlines?

Recently, I took a short flight on Spirit from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I was interviewing CEO Ben Baldanza the next day, so I figured I should try his airline first. (And yes, Spirit really is the most profitable airline in America.) 

Spirit has gotten a reputation for not caring about its customers, but it's hard to tell if that's deserved. The bottom line is that Spirit isn't trying to be a full service airline, so it's probably not fair for customers to expect it to be.  In exchange for a cheap flight --and yes, in most cases Spirit is a lot cheaper than its competitors -- Spirit has cut back on extras. 

"There's great tradeoff here," Baldanza told me. "You can save a lot of money when you fly Spirit and you'll give up some things. You'll sit in a little tighter seat. But you are going to have a lot of control over your price."

Let's take a look at my Spirit experience. 

1. Price. I paid Spirit $48.99 to fly  one-way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Of that amount, taxes accounted for $12.47. So on the base fare, Spirit took $36.52 to fly me to Las Vegas. Do you blame the airline for trying to make money off me on the back end?

2. Bags. Spirit charges $26 for one normal sized carry-on bag,  provided you commit when you buy your ticket. The longer you wait before departure, the more Spirit charges for that bag. Likewise, Spirit charges $21 for a checked bag, if you commit at ticketing. It goes up as the flight gets closer.  Spirit will charge as much as $100 at the gate, but that's more to dissuade you from trying to sneak a bag on without paying. 

Yes, I have an expense account, but I knew that if I purchased bags, I would probably erase whatever discount I got by buying the ticket. So I took advantage of a loophole. You can bring "personal sized" carry-on bags for free.  It is remarkable how much stuff you can place in a tiny bag -- as this YouTube Video shows. (My tiny bag was a men's messenger bag.)

There is an added bonus for carry-on bag fees -- both for Spirit and for customers. People bring less stuff on the aircraft, which means Spirit can turn planes faster. But the cabin is actually a lot more civilized. There's no rush to cram stuff in overhead bins, which makes boarding a lot calmer.

I recommend traveling with a tiny bag on Spirit -- It is possible -- but if you need to make sure your bag is within the size limits.  If you try to sneak on a bag that is too large, Spirit will levy you a $100 fine. That's bad. 

I recommend traveling with a tiny bag on Spirit -- It is possible -- but if you need to make sure your bag is within the size limits.  If you try to sneak on a bag that is too large, Spirit will levy you a $100 fine. That's bad. 

3. Advertising. Overhead bin adverts help keep the cost of tickets low. I was not bothered in the slightest. What do you think?

Spirit calls this a "Big Front Seat." I call it, first class without perks you don't need. 

Spirit calls this a "Big Front Seat." I call it, first class without perks you don't need. 

4. Pay for what you want. Here's where I think Spirit has an advantage over other airlines. The strategy is to get passengers to pay for what is important to them. I knew I could live for 48 hours in Las Vegas without much luggage, so I packed light and avoided a fee. But I knew Spirit's coach seats are tight -- there's no knee room and they do not recline -- so I wanted more legroom. 

For $15, I purchased a seat in row two. It looked and felt in every way like another airline's first class. The seats were big and arranged in a two-by-two configuration. But for $15, all I got was the seat. No free drinks. No free bags. That's OK for me. I didn't need drinks or bags. But I did want space.

The bottom line is that another airline might have charged me an extra $150 for first class for this flight and would have given me a bunch of free stuff I didn't want. 

5. Nothing is free You probably gathered this already, but nothing is free on Spirit. That includes snacks and drinks.

But as Baldanza is fond of saying, nothing is really free on other airlines. You're just paying for the cost of your Coke when you buy your ticket. And if you don't choose not to have a drink on another airline, you basically subsidize someone else's Coke.

Bottom line: To be sure, there are issues with Spirit Airlines. But a lot of them have to do with what are called irregular operations. Spirit only has one or two flights between cities each day, and if one of them is canceled or delayed, passengers can really get stranded. But if all goes well and your flight is only 45 minutes, like mine to Las Vegas, it's not a bad deal.