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The Spirit Airlines Business Model for America, for the Entire World

The Spirit Airing of America FORT LAUDERDALE, USA, Spirit Airlines Terminal- “This is the most crowded terminal I’ve ever seen,” a wrinkly faced woman with big gold rimmed glasses complained aloud to nobody in particular. “I can’t believe this, it is unbelievable how they cram so many people in here,” spoke a guy into his [...]

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The Spirit Airing of America

FORT LAUDERDALE, USA, Spirit Airlines Terminal- “This is the most crowded terminal I’ve ever seen,” a wrinkly faced woman with big gold rimmed glasses complained aloud to nobody in particular.

“I can’t believe this, it is unbelievable how they cram so many people in here,” spoke a guy into his cell phone.

“Where’s George? Have you seen George? Our flight is boarding, with all these people I can’t find George,” a fat man laughed with his companions as he tried to find George.

My own opinions were being expressed all around me as I sat wedged into a seat at gate 22 in Spirit Air’s Fort Lauderdale terminal. I found no reason to voice my own complaints, as a collection of annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise exasperated flyers were doing such of good job of this already. We were in for the Spirit Air experience, and a “well, we get what we pay for,” type of resignation subdued all who were not actively complaining.

The terminal was packed. It was difficult to move between gates because a mass of humanity was clogging the works. There were traffic jams of luggage, arms, legs, larger sized people, kids tucked tight against the legs of parents, groups doing roll call, the six seeing eye dogs that some woman was transporting decided to stop walking in a forward direction and splay out on their respective leashes — all causing what virtually amounted to a blockade. I made my way through the mess like water in a bathroom sink slowing making its way down a clogged drain.

I went to use the men’s room but stopped short when I found the line extending all the way out the door, running like a snake through the terminal. I could not complain though, as the line for the woman’s room was twice as long. I thought I would be smart and try to find another restroom, but it did not take long before it became apparent that there wasn’t one: this terminal only had one small restroom per sex.

I thought of all of those public facility and person per square foot maximum capacity laws that my country is known for having. It appeared as if they were being pushed to their limits here.

I’ve experienced crowded public transportation conditions like this hundreds of times before in my travels — but  always in countries like China or India, never the United States of America. I cannot recall another time when I’ve had to actively fight for the space to exist in my home country outside of a major spectator sporting event or concert. I scored a recently vacated seat at a gate whose flight was boarding, and was able to fully take in and observe the rather novel scene that was taking place before me:

So this is the new America?

It is my impression that companies in the USA once attracted customers by offering services above and beyond the call of the bare essentials. This was a culture were the idea of service was highly valued and quality was expected. I believe that the expectation of quality service in the USA simply became convention, and is something that Americans don’t notice until it is gone.

Spirit Airlines is one of a host of low cost carriers that strip their services down beyond the bare essentials, and charge extra fees for supposedly optional “perks,” that are conventionally included in the ticket price of a full-service carrier. So Spirit has fees for carry on baggage, in person check-in, all checked-in luggage, a separate fee for a seat in the airplane, and yet another fee to purchase a ticket from them all in the name of keeping their operating expenses low and profit margins high.

The services that we once took for granted in the USA are now called “luxuries” under the Spirit Air model, and you have to pay extra for them — “a la carte” style. At root, the “only pay for the services you want” structure is truly excellent, and has more than a hint of the American thirst for individualism in it. (The catch is that Spirit Air charges extra fees that you can’t opt out of. I.e. I don’t think the FAA would let me fly on a plane without a seat, how do you pay for a ticket online without using a credit card? But this is beside the point of this article. Read more about Spirit Air here.) I would love it if I could bypass a waitress in restaurant in the USA, deliver my order directly to the cook, and carry my own food back to my table so I would not have to leave a tip. The cost cutting methods of the budget airlines is a structure that I think will soon take off in all aspects of commerce in the USA.

People complaining about a lack of service will soon seemed old fashioned and outdated, this is the Faster, Cheaper, Shittier era of business.

In the early 90s, NASA initiated a program called Faster, Better, Cheaper, which entailed a full audit of all aspects of their institution to figure out how to do more, better, and with less money. The program was necessary, as after the space race NASA’s funding plummeted. To continue research, they had to figure out how to stretch each dollar they received. This is akin to the drop in revenue that is floating around US markets and this era of the perpetual “economic downturn.” The stripped down methods of Spirit Air may start looking more and more attractive to companies in other sects in the USA, and throughout the world for that matter.

Spirit Air’s methods may be cheaper, they may be faster, but they are in no way better. Rather, Spirit Air = Faster, Cheaper, Shittier.

The USA seems to be entering into a cultural shift, as disposable income is becoming an every more precious commodity. When it comes down to it, cheap and shitty is more desirable to more Americans than better and not as cheap. The bottom line is what matters, and the Spirit Air method is all about the bottom line. Comfort and quality cannot step to cheap, especially in a consumer culture that wants to purchase more with less money. From looking at Spirit Air’s quarterly statements, Cheaper, Faster, Shittier is a highly profitable business strategy.

There are three main expressions of capitalism: making money, spending money, and saving money. All three aspects are shrouded in a cult like mystic in capitalist cultures. Making money and spending money are clearly evident obsessions in US culture, but saving money is on the rise now as well.

In obeisance to the cult of the miser, I observed people from all races, many creeds, varying economic standings — myself, too — crammed in together in that Spirit Air terminal. I saw a shift in my culture as I watched so many people dealing with sub-third world conditions. It is rare for a man to ever need to wait 30 minutes to use a toilet because of a lack facilities in just about any country that I’ve ever been in — even the poorest of the poor. But Spirit Air has shown that the average American will endure inconvenience, a lack of quality, and bare bones service in the name of saving money.

It was just reported that Spirit Air has over 350 million dollars in expendable cash, an amount that continues to rise with each financial quarter.

What is truly interesting about Spirit Air and their ilk — such as Ryanair in Europe — is that they are rolling in the dough and showing massive profits while their customer satisfaction ratings are the lowest in the business. These companies prove that there is not an inherent connection between customer satisfaction and profits, that money spent to keep customers happy may not worth the expense if you can consistently provide them with a lower price than your competitors.  The budget airlines know what matters most in a consumer culture: lowest cost.

It is shown that those grumblers and complainers in that terminal will continue to fly Spirit Airlines, sub-par conditions and all, because they are cheaper. I will continue to fly with Spirit: their over-crowded terminals, old and dirty planes, and complete disregard for the fact that humans generally come equipped with legs and need enough space to store them in between their seat and the one in front of them is not not enough to get me to pay more money on another airline.

I would rather fly cheaper than have quality service, comfort, leg room, and amenities. I would like to say that I am uniquely cash strapped, plebeian, and miserly when compared to my fellow countrymen, but the numbers show that this is not the case: the full service airlines are becoming ever more grounded in bankruptcy, while the ultra low cost carriers like Spirit are flying high.

The USA and most of the post-industrialized world have spoken: comfort and quality are obsessions of the past, we want cheap.

Though, like NASA, expedient and cheaper business practices does not come without drawbacks. NASA made a bunch of blunders and lost a few Mars missions during their Faster, Better, Cheaper era, and Spirit Air does not seem to be applying their Faster, Cheaper, Shittier methods with due graces either:

In 2008, Spirit had the highest number of complaints per passenger among all larger sized U.S. airlines.  98% of their pilots voted to go on strike in 2009 — a decision into practice for one week in 2010. Also in 2009, the FAA fined Spirit Air $375,000 for violating consumer protection regulations . . .

But the bottom line does not lie: Spirit Airlines is reeling in the cash, putting the full service carriers out of business.

I predict that the Spirit Air model will grow in the USA. The Faster, Cheaper, Shittier model will be taken on by all aspects of business in the country. It seems to be too profitable of a strategy not to become a rule of commerce. I predict that offices will take on the appearance of white collar sweatshops, businesses will run on the lowest number of employees possible, workers will be charged with keeping their workplaces clean,  bathrooms will be reduced to the lowest number possible (possibly even charging per use), employees will need to provide their own work equipment, plastic will replace steel, stone, and wood wherever possible, advertisements will cover the walls of cubicles, you will have to watch an ad before being allowed to log in for a day of work, automation will be the rule, waitresses will go extinct, everything you buy will be done with a touch screen, TV monitors and computers will replace teachers . . . as the USA transitions into an “Ultra-Low Cost Society.”

The Spirit Airing of America.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Economics

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • G December 4, 2011, 5:23 pm

    hello Wade, I flew ryan air a few times this summer. A surprisingly pleasant experience, and amazingly cheap. They do itemize their fees but don’t seem ridiculous about the way spirit does (you don’t pay for a seat, fee for credit card but not debit card etc). And the cost borders on unbelievable it cost me all of 20 euros to fly from the netherlands to stockholm. By contrast once in stockholm a mixed drink in a cheap bar costed about 10 euros, or a train trip from netherlands to sweden would have costed well over 200 euros. At those prices the amazing thing is that everyone isn’t flying on ryan air. Ultimately in our rapidly globalizing world the U.S. and western Eurpope must take steps to become more competitive. We live in interesting times. g.

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    • Wade Shepard December 6, 2011, 1:00 am

      Yes, I can’t really complain. I usually use the budget airlines. It is really interesting to watch the cultural shifts in the cultures of developed countries to, as you said, compete in the global market. Good service is no longer for the rabble, but it is cool that we can still get 20 Euro flights. Stuff service and comfort I want cheap haha!

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