Will Kansas City embrace Spirit Airlines' Bare Fare?

08/03/2014 7:00 AM

08/04/2014 1:17 PM

This week, the Bare Fare comes to Kansas City.

Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines will begin flying out of Gate 79 of Kansas City International Airport on Thursday, offering daily, nonstop flights to Chicago O’Hare, Dallas, Detroit and Las Vegas. Flights to Houston start Friday.

In Spiritspeak, “bare” means a plane ticket pays for one seat and one personal item (no larger than 16 inches). To give passengers “frill control,” there are add-on options, such as printing a boarding pass ($10), choosing a seat ($1-$50) or carrying on a bag ($35 before online check-in, $45 during online check-in, $100 at the gate).

“The choice is yours,” said Spirit’s media relations director Paul Berry. “The control over what you are charged for is yours through this type of fare.”

In return, customers often get the cheapest ticket on the market. But the airline also carries some baggage, so to speak.

Is it worth it?

Leonard Lee of Eagan, Minn., flew Spirit from Minneapolis to Chicago in July. The seating was a little cramped, he said, but he’s not tall, so it wasn’t a problem. Not knowing his seating assignment in advance was unusual, but not a deterrent.

“I viewed it a little like playing a lottery scratch-off game,” Lee said. “Did I win a window seat? Darn! Middle seat. Oh, well, at least reasonably close to the front.”

As for the savings, he didn’t notice them.

“The total cost was about the same or maybe even slightly more than taking Southwest or Delta,” Lee said. “But, hey, the schedule fit and the flight experience was just fine. Would I fly Spirit again? If the schedule is right, the price is right, and my knees can tolerate the journey, I wouldn’t hesitate to. I like the concept of paying only for the services and amenities that I use.”

Long criticized for nickel-and-diming customers, Spirit rebranded itself in May, with the help of Kansas City-based advertising agency, Barkley.

Its chirpy, bright yellow website seeks to better explain its pricing method and “cozy seating.” It also invites people to “unleash their hate” about Spirit or other airlines on its website in exchange for 8,000 frequent flier miles.

Last year, Business Insider ranked Spirit No. 11 on the “20 Worst Airlines in the World” — the only U.S. airline on the list. (Yes, it rated better than airlines in Turkmenistan, North Korea and the Sudan.) Consumer Reports also dubbed it the worst airline in the country. As its review explained, “Spirit Airlines received one of the lowest overall scores for any company we’ve ever rated.”

Berry knows the complaints. He gets them. And he thinks Spirit can fix them.

“Our planes are always full,” Berry said. “The people who really love us, they get us.

“The people who haven’t quite gotten us, who have expressed some hate because of their experience, we feel it’s a time to help educate them on who we are.”

Picking one day and one destination city, The Star recently analyzed competitive flights to compare the bottom line. These flights leave Kansas City on Aug. 25, a Monday, for Detroit. The round trip flights return on Aug. 28, a Thursday.

Even with those various fees — $3 for a 16-oz. water bottle? — Spirit’s ticket prices still usually cruise below those of competitors. That might be just what customers want. A FindLaw study in June found that while people strongly dislike airline fees, 53 percent are willing to pay higher airfares to get rid of them; 47 percent appreciate airline options a la carte.

Mark Kopczak, Spirit’s vice president of network planning, hopes Spirit’s presence will force other carriers to lower fares and increase the overall number of travelers.

“We’re not coming in to take customers from other airlines,” Kopczak said. “We’re just trying to bring people back who can’t fly because the seats haven’t been available or the prices have been too high. We add more seats to the market and lower prices.”

Joseph Denardi, airline analyst at Stifel Financial Corp., said Spirit will lower the average fare, but probably will not force other airlines to drop their prices.

“You don’t see that degree of competition from other carriers,” Denardi said. “I think they’re willing to sacrifice that segment of the market, the lower fare, to Spirit.”

As for Spirit’s reputation — it’s a work in progress.

Spirit plans to add six planes by the end of the year to address complaints about frequent flight delays on Spirit’s 58 planes.

“We’ve invested in extra airplanes to help keep the airline running on time,” Kopczak said. “Those things, which are very important to customers, in terms of getting to your destination on time, we’ve made investments to ensure that we do that a lot better than perhaps we might have done in the past.”

Adithya Ramanathan, a University of Michigan freshman from New Jersey, flew Spirit to his college orientation on July 21. While it was the cheaper option, he explained in an email, the extra costs added up too quickly.

Admitting he didn’t do his research beforehand, he’s heading for a different ticket counter next time.

“The seats are also small, and narrow, especially if you choose to not pre-select a seat,” he said. A “big front seat,” by the way, would cost an extra $12 to $199 if requested in advance. “I am 6 feet 2 inches tall, and the flight was very uncomfortable.”

Spirit is doing what it can to convince jaded customers to give them second chance. Remember that unleash-the-hate thing? .

“If you care about somebody, and they’re angry about your behavior, the best thing to do is let them vent about how they’re angry with you,” Berry said. “You give them a peace offering of some kind, and then you begin to heal the relationship.”

With KCI being the first airport added since the Spirit rebrand, Kansas City’s response may show whether people will prefer their airline fares to be bare.

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To contact Linley Sanders, call 816-234-4297 or send email to lsanders@kcstar.com.

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