Spirit Airlines: Overwhelming Success by Providing the Worst Customer Experience

The airline industry is one of the few businesses where the more you beat up the customers, make them feel uncomfortable, and consistently lie and cheat them, the better your business does. The typical airline customer may get walloped in the customer service department, but then usually responds back "Please, sir, hit me again."

Alas, this explains the runaway success of Spirit Airlines. In no way do I mean to begrudge them. In fact, the super low-cost carrier deserves our respect. Spirit recently reported first quarter profits of nearly $62 million. That's not bad for a product that ranks consistently as the worst in the industry. The American Customer Survey Index last month reported that Spirit came in dead last for customer satisfaction for U.S. airlines. How many iPhones would Apple sell if it came in dead-last in customer satisfaction. How many cars would General Motors ship if driving one felt like driving a golf cart? But for airlines, it's a business model that works -- at least for now.

Spirit is known for its ruthless pricing (bare fares) and no-frills (shall we say 'negative frills'?) approach to running an airline. According to Conde Naste Traveler Magazine, Spirit offers the lowest fares on 70 percent of the routes surveyed, though the magazine points out that its a la carte pricing offerings usually raises those fares considerably.

The seat pitch on a typical Spirit Airbus is 28 inches, which is the lowest of domestic carriers. And the seats don't recline -- if they did, you would have to leave your knees at home. SeatGuru, a website that rates airline seats, has color coded virtually the entire cabin yellow -- "beware." And Spirit charges for everything from bags to soda.

So why does the American flying public put up with it? Because we have consistently chosen price over comfort. Economy over convenience. Torture over pleasure.

There have been misguided attempts in Congress (thanks New York Senator Charles Schumer) to regulate seat size and comfort. But we should let the marketplace speak for itself. Those who fly Spirit do so so they can take the family on that one extra vacation a year. The fares allow grandma to visit the grandkids more often. And the pricing scheme allows the college kid an extra day in Florida for spring break.

I do predict turbulent times ahead for Spirit and its elk. As the economy improves, travelers will have more money and will choose higher-class airlines. I'm not sure Spirit is in position to pivot, since its reputation is so poor. Conversely, JetBlue has always offered a better product at low prices and was, therefore, able to raise prices when it needed to.

In the end, you get the airline you deserve and pay for. And that's the way it should be.