May 3, 2012

Why Spirit’s New $100 Carry On Fee Isn’t As Crazy As It Sounds

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A shiny Spirit Airlines Airbus A320. (Photo by Matt Molnar)

One whole Benjamin. A hundred bucks.

The baggage fee pioneers at Spirit Airlines have announced a new unified pricing schedule that eliminates differences in pricing between International and Domestic flights, raising fees for some services by a few dollars, while lowering others. The new rates take effect for flights on or after November 6.

There is one glaring fee hike that stands out: $100 to carry on a bag if you declare it at the gate. This represents a 122% increase over the previous $45 fee, which already seemed quite steep.

While Spirit is widely ridiculed for their fees, this is over-the-top even for them, I thought. This can’t just be pure greed, right? Maybe there’s some practical reason for the off-the-scale increase?

I began putting together a scenario in my head. Surely, a number of Spirit customers must attempt to carry on bags without paying, either out of frugality or ignorance. Most of these people probably get caught redhanded while boarding, which forces a gate agent to take time to pull them out of the line, possibly argue with them for a couple of minutes, and then ring up their credit card. This slows down boarding for the whole plane.

At the current fee of $45, it’s a gamble many people might be willing to take: If they slither through undetected they pay $0; if they get caught, they pay $45 — only $25 more than the $20 they would have paid if they’d declared their bag during the original booking process.

But at $100, the stakes are significantly higher. Getting caught under the new fee schedule means a $75 difference between the carry on fee paid at booking and the at-the-gate fee. Imagine shelling out 5x what you paid for your ticket to carry on a carry on.

I asked Spirit to confirm my theory.

“Yes, we want to discourage customers from waiting until the last minute, which delays the boarding process, thus the intentionally higher fare,” said Misty Pinson, Spirit’s Director of Corporate Communications.


Pinson continued, “We expect that our new $100 fee charged for those who wait until they get to the gate will ensure that customers purchase their bags before arriving at the gate.”

Bottom line: Spirit is threatening people with a high fee to get them to pay a lower fee ahead of time. It’s not the end of the world. If you pay for your carry on at the time of booking, the fee is only $25; if you pay at check-in, it’s $35.

I’ve been known to poke fun at Spirit on this site from time to time, and I’ve never flown them personally, but I don’t hate on their business model: They’re making money while transporting people safely at a competitive price, even if they arrive at that price through a more nickel-and-dimey approach than most other airlines.

As with any other product, consumers need to be aware of what they’re getting into before they buy. If you want good customer service and a decent seat, fly JetBlue or Delta. But Spirit is a legitimate option you’re on a budget and getting there is more important to you than how you get there.

That said, Spirit needs to tread carefully. This $100 carry on business will likely create an amount of backlash and negative publicity they haven’t seen before, even if it only affects a small number of travelers. Headlines will not be forgiving.

Here’s the full fee list from Spirit’s website:
Spirit Airlines baggage fees

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  • xsquatchx

    i have flown spirit once.  i caught a $9 LGA-NAS fare about 6 years ago before they went all psycho with the fees.  the trip went off without a hitch, and the A320 was ok, but i couldn’t get the feeling of nervousness out of my body that if something went awry with my travel plans that i would have no one at spirit there to help me.