A somewhat dis-Spiriting flight experience.

I wondered prior to booking my first real-life confirmed passenger ticket in well over  a decade how air travel had changed.  Thirteen years of stand-by leisure, or confirmed business travel, as an employee with Delta left me with a distant memory of my last revenue ticket, on ValuJet no less, in December of 1996 – just as that company was trying in vain to recover from its Everglades’ disaster of that same year.

Back then you didn’t have to worry about checked bag fees, fees to book through a company reservations agent, or a few bucks for a water.  But oh how times have changed.  Scoping out a week’s vacation in Pawley’s Island near Myrtle Beach with the future in-laws left me with few direct choices.  And since the generous folks were footing the bill for my future niece, nephew, and wife, my choices were fewer still.  So, what the heck.  When “grandpa” mentioned Spirit, I was all for it.

But then the trial began.  While I admittedly have not navigated a public airline site for the purposes of buying a ticket (mining fees is a whole different story) since Bill Clinton was in office and the Atlanta Olympics were barely history, I am not unfamiliar with carving through sites for looking for deals.  But wow, the Spirit site had me going for quite some time to try to book and reserve seats.  (At one point, I was so frustrated I took the time to pop a cold one to chill out before I could muster up the courage to attack the site again.)  I wondered aloud to my future better half how the less technically inclined could possibly figure out what was causing me, Mr. Internet Savvy, to lose even more of my tender, ever-vanishing hairline in pursuit of simple seat selection.

But, once the booking process was out of the way, it was time to fly.  And woohoo, to vacation without worrying about being stranded, a non-rev’s (term used by airline employees when flying standby for free or at reduced prices) perpetual nightmare, was an endeavor that had me curiously excited.

Check-in was no problem as the counter staff was very polite and even cutting up with my gregarious and precocious nephew-in-waiting.  We even poked fun at how much it would cost to check the rascal as a carry-on.  We’d already paid our fees to sit together but with the Airbus’ configuration of three across, an aisle, then two, it was impossible for the four of us to sit side by side.  So, as a research project, or so I sold it to my dubious fiancee, I decided to purchase the Big Front Seat for $25.oo. At the counter, we were told that the flight would be delayed because of in-bound late arriving equipment.  I was a bit surprised since it was early Sunday morning which traditionally has meant lower load factors and less air traffic to slow down arrivals and departures, but it became clear through my flight experience why this was the case.  (I later confirmed with Grandpa that late flights on Spirit are, hmmm, something with which he’s not unfamiliar.)

Boarding was no problem though I was surprised that the 14-inch or so boarding passes, perforated in several spots to allow easy detachment, were collected and stacked with no gate reader.  I wondered how up-do-date Spirit’s boarding technology was since the process appeared to add manual processes to an operation that had gone electronic at Delta years ago.  And could this perhaps be a contributor to our delay since the in-bound plane was from Florida and heading to NY?  Still not sure about that, but it did give me pause.

Once on board, I was immediately aware of the crumbs and general messiness of the carpets and my Big Front Seat.  I had to brush off the remnants of the previous passenger’s pretzels or such before I sat down and some stains on the leather seats looked like paint – enough to make me long for Ricardo Montalban’s genuine, disingenuous real fake “Corinthian” leather.   I pondered if this is the price to pay for the Ultra-LCC experience.  After departing late, no problems enroute though I did have a curious exchange with the flight attendant whom I flagged down and told about TruPrice.  I inquired about a small bag of pretzels she’d offered without any fee as I recalled that Spirit did not mention free snacks of any sort in its documentation…either online, or its in-flight magazine.  She wistfully answered that the pretzels were part of Spirit’s credit card promotion and that each airplane got two boxes of bagged pretzels at the beginning of the day and when they ran out, they ran out.  What a curious business model, I opined.

I told her that I was impressed with the spaciousness of the Big Front Seat (withholding any mention of the stains since she didn’t look like the painting type) and that it was a great deal even for that short a flight – being 6′ 3″ and tipping the scales, well these days, breaking the scales, can make a coach seat even for a short trip unbearable for me and the folks in front, beside, and behind me.  She then pointed to the row in front of me and said that had I booked the seat in front instead of upgrading at the time of check-in, it would’ve cost me more.  I asked, for what?  She brilliantly responded because  you’re in row three and they’re in row two.  Huh?  She clearly did not get the logic of it and was having a good time trying to make sense of something neither of us could grasp.

After a week of too much sun, sand, and too many lunches at Gilligan’s with their awesome FREE hush puppies, I decided to sit in coach on the way back to experience the true ultra-LCC life.  Once again, our flight was delayed.  This time, though, it was a Saturday with typically even less traffic than Sunday.  But, as we were informed by the captain, this time it was for mechanical issues in LGA.  I was impressed that Spirit got out ahead of the delay at the gate and asked for passengers with duffel bags to gate-check them for FREE.  Which I decided to do.

Once on the airplane, again, I could not help but notice the mess of crumbs and wrappers on the floor and in the seatbacks.  Had no one done even a light cleaning of the cabin before boarding a whole new horde of passengers?  Guess not, but settling into my coach seat I did find a NY Post from that morning tucked into the seat pocket in front of me.  A Bostonian by birth, I decided reading a NY paper was better than the in-flight magazine.  After departing 90 minutes late, we had an uneventful trip to ATL that was so short my rock-em sock-em nephew-in-waiting had barely enough time to get out the pipe cleaners he’d gotten from day camp that week to start tweaking all exposed parts of my head and ears.

After de-planing, I got my checked duffel rather quickly, a nice surprise indeed.

Conclusions:  If Spirit is carving out a niche with ultra-low fares yet also attaching fees to everything imaginable, including checked bags over a certain size, then its model may appeal to the budget-conscious traveler who is willing to scale back to bare bones carry-on luggage, zero amenities, and perhaps being seated in another row from your travel buddies.  But, if you’re used to one of the big three legacies, well, four I guess until the UAL/CO deal closes, then Spirit may not be for you.  As I left Hartsfield-Jackson with my future in tow, I said to her that I didn’t see Spirit as something we’d become big fans of going forward.  She agreed.  I hope it’s always this easy.

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