Skift Take

Spirit Airlines is taking delivery of new aircraft, so this is an easy time for the airline to add more comfortable seats. The big question is will the airline pay to retrofit older jets to new standards? That's an expensive proposition, but it would show the airline is paying attention to passenger desires.

Spirit Airlines has spent three years trying to persuade passengers it shed its reputation as a company that hates its customers. Now it’s on the cusp of doing something unthinkable not long ago — it’ll invest in more comfortable seats.

“There will be enhancements,” CEO Ted Christie said Monday in an interview at the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas. “There will be some changes to the cushion and to the pre-recline. There will be a full-size tray table.”

For any other airline, this might not be a big deal. But under former CEO Ben Baldanza, who left in early 2016, Spirit took an almost combative approach toward customer comfort. Passengers, Baldanza sometimes would say, would keep returning despite bad experiences so long as they could save a few bucks over the competition.

But preferences change, and Spirit recently has been on a customer-service kick as it seeks to retain customers who might defect to American Airlines, United Airlines or Delta Air Lines, all of which now sell a basic economy fare that roughly matches Spirit’s product attributes. Spirit remains obsessive about cost control, but on the margins, the airline wants to treat customers better so they will (happily) return.

Christie was coy about seat details, since the airline plans to make an official announcement next month. But he said Spirit also plans to upgrade its Big Front Seats, the airline’s rough copy of a legacy airline’s first-class seat.

When Spirit announces its plans, it will also unveil a messaging campaign to explain to customers why the airline is not as uncomfortable as they may think. It’ll even as tell passengers that seat pitch — Spirit’s standard is about 28 inches, tied for the lowest in the United States — is not the only measure of seat quality.

“We’re going to be spending time talking about why the comfort and feel on our plane is significantly different than the way that it’s talked about in the industry,” Christie said.

There are limits to Spirit’s plans. While the new cabin will debut soon on factory-fresh Airbus jets, Spirit has not decided whether it will update existing seats. And while Christie said he’s sure passengers will like the product, he also admitted the new seats are lighter than the current version, so Spirit will burn less fuel. The seats still won’t have power, nor television screens.

Spirit also will make other tweaks to the cabin, including adding its yellow and black branding. Today’s seats are blue.

“We took the opportunity to look at it and say, ‘OK what do we like about what we’re doing onboard the airplane? And what don’t we like?” Christie said. “We were working with our seat manufacturer and they were saying, ‘Hey, we were looking at doing a few things to the existing seat that are going to enhance the comfort of the seat.'”

Wi-Fi Challenges

By now, Spirit had planned to roll out Wi-Fi, becoming one of the only ultra-low-cost-carriers in the world with it. In a 2018 announcement, it said it would be just about done with installations by summer 2019.

Christie admitted it has not gone as planned. He said the airline’s provider, Thales Group, had run into “supply chain issues” with the antenna on the top of the airplane, and the project has been significantly delayed.

“They’re resolving that,” he said. “Now we’re sort of close to being in this phase where we’re going to work through a testing period where we all feel collectively comfortable that it is producing the kind of reliability we want, and then we can go into the full-scale deployment.”

He said the entire fleet probably won’t have Wi-Fi until 2021.

Operational Costs

Spirit last month shocked investors by saying its unit costs, not including fuel, would increase 7 to 8 percent this quarter because the airline would need to spend to resolve operational troubles. Spirit’s stock has fallen 31 percent since the announcement.

Christie on Monday said Spirit still expects this to be a short-term increase, as the airline recovers from an earlier mistake. 

He said Spirit erred by trying to boost profits during the summer by flying its aircraft more hours each day. The plan backfired when Spirit struggled to maintain on-time performance, and costs from irregular operations increased. Spirit does not have interline agreements with major airlines, so when it cancels a flight, it must buy passengers full-priced tickets on other carriers, and that gets expensively, quickly.

“We led the industry in on-time performance in October,” said John Kirby, Spirit’s vice president of network planning. “We were running record completion factor, and we felt we maybe left a little bit of money on the table. We wanted to push the operation just a little bit more, so we ran a little higher utilization, a little more departures per aircraft.”

Despite the hit to the company’s stock price, Christie said the problem is easily fixable and the extra costs should be only a near-term problem. Once the schedule has more slack, he said, the costs of re-booking passengers will fall considerably.

“In this effort to drive efficiency, we spent more money than we thought,” he said “That’s the reason the costs are higher in this quarter. And so the inverse of that is by perhaps introducing more slack in the system, you’re actually going to remove expense.”

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Tags: airline passenger experience, spirit airlines

Photo credit: Spirit Airlines says it is introducing new more comfortable seats on its Airbus aircraft. Pictured is an existing Airbus interior. Spirit Airlines

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