The Single Biggest Reason I Avoid Spirit And Other Low Cost Carriers

Filed Under: Advice, Frontier

Ben and I have recently been sharing our experiences flying low cost carriers. He and I both flew Spirit for the first time this summer, while I’ve also had several flights on Frontier over the past few years. I even flew SkyBus during their brief history!

I don’t have a problem flying the LCCs at all. I understand their business model, and as Ben said, if you read the rules and understand their game, you can thrive within their system. I know people who swear by flying Frontier, right down to leaving a second wardrobe at their destination so they can avoid checking bags. Other people have a cargo vest which enables them to basically bring the contents of a carry-on without paying the bag fee.

I also enjoy mingling with the clientele on these flights. Spirit and Frontier are basically like public transportation in the sky — SkyBus had the right name, if nothing more — so they attract people from all walks of life which is great. I nearly witnessed a fight break out over a dispute over which line was legitimate at Spirit check-in and Ben heard a few colorful words during his flight.

My point is, those of us with super-elite status can find ourselves in a bubble where we go from premier check-in, to the TSA Pre-Check lane (or Clear) security, to the airport lounge, to priority boarding, to our first class seat, to Global Entry immigration, all without interacting with anyone that isn’t just like us. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it’s good to stay grounded once in a while by seeing how the other 99% of the population flies.

That said, I still tend to avoid low cost carriers for one simple reason.

Irregular operations such as flight delays and cancellations are a daily occurrence on pretty much every airline.

Some carriers may have a better or worse record than others, but if you fly enough, you’ll eventually find yourself waiting at the gate for a delayed flight no matter who you fly.

Not all IRROPS are even the fault of the carrier, as weather or airport congestion can impact everyone flying through a region. In the past few months alone I’ve had a 5-hour delay on Frontier when the pilot called in sick and a 3-hour delay on United due to a mechanical. And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.

IRROPS are bound to happen no matter who you fly —  the real difference is in how airlines recover from them. In my experience, legacy carriers are simply far better equipped to deal with irrops than low cost carriers, for two main reasons.

The size of the network matters

American, United, Delta, and to as lesser extent Southwest each operate a dense hub-and-spoke network of flights within the United States. That gives them a lot of redundancy to reroute you if they experience weather or operation difficulties with a particular flight.

Say you are flying from Detroit to Boston like I was earlier this summer. Delta, JetBlue, and Spirit all fly that route non-stop. Spirit has one flight per day, JetBlue maybe three, and Delta about seven. If you are flying Delta and something happens to your flight, they can easily move you to the next flight. That’s true of JetBlue as well, but to a lesser extent.

Non-stop flights from Detroit to Boston

Meanwhile if your Spirit flight gets canceled, you are mostly likely going to have to wait until the next day, or get a refund and buy a walk-up ticket on another carrier.

It’s not just about the number of daily frequencies

Now imagine that your Delta flight from Detroit to Boston cancels, but all of the other Delta flights that day to Boston are already full. Because Delta operates a dense network, they can route you via New York LaGuardia, or even Atlanta.

You might not prefer the added connection and the longer travel time, but they’ll get you to your destination on the same day. Here’s Delta’s route map, for example.

Delta route map

Spirit’s network just doesn’t have the same redundancy.

And in fact, their route map probably overstates their redundancy since I expect that most of the lines coming into a destination aren’t actually timed well for connections.

Spirit route map

In short, flying is like routing packets of information through the internet — the shortest route may not always be the fastest route given the congestion or equipment currently operating.

The most reliable networks are those that offer a significant degree of redundancy and can adapt on the fly to changing conditions. Low cost generally don’t have alternative routing options to get you to your destination since they tend to operate point-to-point routes which were specifically selected to pick off the most lucrative routes of network carriers.

That’s all fine and dandy when the sun is shining, but when the stuff hits the fan….

Most low cost carriers lack interline agreements

The low cost carriers tend not to play with each other or the network carriers — they tend to operate in their own little world as though they are the only airline that exists. That’s just part of their business model, and helps them keep costs low.

The legacy carriers, on the other hand, generally have some form of interline agreements between themselves. That means, for example, that if you are flying United from New Orleans to Oklahoma City via Houston and your first segment is delayed, it’s pretty easy for the counter agent to move you over to American via Dallas.

Now don’t me wrong, this form of mutual cooperation is no where near as good as it once was. As airlines have gotten bigger and bigger through consolidation, some — <cough> Delta <cough> — have taken more of a go-it-alone approach. But it’s still better than nothing in most cases.

About 10 years ago, I was scheduled to fly from Boston to Denver on JetBlue for a weekend trip to see my girlfriend. My flight got cancelled and they couldn’t rebook me until two days later because the next day’s flight was already full. So it would essentially turned into a trip in vain.

If JetBlue had an interline agreement with United, they could have easily moved me to one of their several non-stop flights. But instead, there was really nothing I could do but take a refund and go home. (Don’t worry, she still married me a few years later.)

Bottom line

I really appreciate what low cost carriers have done to bring down the cost of airfare. I love how they have brought flying to the masses by offering rock bottom fares that are accessible to a larger segment of the population. I also don’t mind their fees and schemes as it’s all part of the business model, and if there’s one thing I tend to be good at it, it’s figuring out how to maximize my opportunities within someone else’s system.

But all that aside, I tend to avoid low cost carries because I understand the statistical value of network redundancy. I’m willing to pay a little more — though not always a lot more — to increase the chances that I’ll get to my destination on time, or in some cases, at all.

Do you worry about the lack of redundancy when flying low cost carriers?

  1. Ha. You’re a better person than me. I would not enjoy mingling with the clientele on those flights. Though it’s speculation because I’ve never flown spirit, frontier, Ryanair. But I have flown air Asia and easyjet. I would prefer mingling with the clientele on jetsmarter.

  2. Lack of redundancy is one factor. Lack of the standard amenities and perks that come with elite status on the legacy carriers is another.

    I like my assigned seat, extra legroom, free checked bags, and the occasional upgrade to first class.

    And while Southwest has free checked bags and a decent network, I don’t like boarding my flight like I’m getting on a bus.

  3. That’s good in theory, but in reality all you’ll really get with Delta is stranded in Atlanta or MSP. And if you were going through an evening flight, you’re stuck till the next day anyway.

    After an unexpected cancellation of an LGA->CVG flight, it was 2 days before Delta could find another flight to put me on. Considering I’m flying between two of their hubs (well, CVG not so much). Because the app kept throwing errors, I had to wait 2+ hours to speak to an agent.

    Personally, I find Alaska to be the most flexible with this- after a 4 hour delay would’ve left me stranded, they basically offered to put me on any carrier (United, Delta, etc.)

  4. I’m typically only concerned with network redundancy and Interline agreements on bigger/longer/more expensive trips. If I’m planning a multi-week cruise in another country, then yes I definitely want to know I have good back-up flight options if something goes sideways. But for a short weekend getaway that can be easily cancelled or driven if needed, no I’m not that concerned.

  5. Also, didn’t the legacies say that if you buy their basic economy fare, they’re going to put you at the bottom of the list for rerouting in case of irregular ops? In other words, for those fares, there is no advantage to flying legacy rather than an ULCC?

  6. Just wanted to share something that happened during one of my trips on Spirit, I had a confirmed ticket and flight was full. They asked, if anyone would give up a confirmed seat for promo use in the future. I gave up my seat and they put me on another spirit flight late next day. After asking them for an earlier flight I flew AA and got miles for ticket price of $600 while spending $30 out of my pocket and $200 worth of promo for future use.

  7. I’m in Europe so i’d get a hotel and food at the airline’s expense – and if they fail to get this arranged i can do it within reasonable boundaries by myself and send them the bill.
    I also won’t get fired for being stuck at the other end of Europe.
    And: Our LCCs are also very reliable (because they want to avoid paying my hotel bill i assume).

    In the US i’d pay the premium for legacy but here i don’t mind Ryanair that much if they have a good price and connection.

  8. @Billiken A memo has been circulating that (B) class fares on American will have last priority for irrops rebooking. This was specific to ground staff in Barcelona and currently, B class isn’t sold on international routes with American.

  9. And further, the larger legacy carriers have more staff – in person or on the phone – to be able to process the reaccomodation for dozens or sometimes hundreds of pax when something goes wrong. If Spirit has a cancellation in Boston, they may have only a few people on hand who will have to manage crowd control, answering questions, and rebooking all at once – and those people might even be contracted from other vendors whose top priority is not Spirit customers.

    The legacy carriers have also been cutting back in this area and can struggle when there’s a systemic issue like weather or a computer failure. But here also is somewhere that priority phone lines, lounge access, and priority rebooking can really be helpful, things which the low cost carriers can’t offer.

  10. I avoid them. I just don’t want the hassle of the fine print about baggage, fees for oxygen, extra room, toilet use fees, pulling up to remote stands in inclement weather at some distant rural airport touting itself as ‘Frankfurt’ when you’re 50 miles away, having to literally beg for a cup of potable water (read about RyanAir or was it EasyJet at one time looking at charging for toilet use). I have used Nikki Air in Europe and it wasn’t bad. I also flew Southwest years ago one time but had no bags. I’ll stick with the mainline carriers in J or F.

  11. I pretty much only ever fly (or would fly) LCC between places where I have a home/place to stay that isn’t paid (i.e. my own house, family’s house, etc..) so that if things go sideways, I have a place to go back to without spending money on a hotel. I’m not an elite on any airline, so I don’t get free upgrades or any of that snazzy stuff, but I do enjoy being able to pick my seat and bring a decent-sized carry-on. Im willing to pay extra for those.

  12. Matt states:
    And while Southwest has free checked bags and a decent network, I don’t like boarding my flight like I’m getting on a bus.

    I might understand if you have exalted status on the legacy airlines and/or flying premium cabin but I disagree if you are not. Southwest’s sequential number system is great. You don’t need to stand in your boarding group until it is called and then you jump into your numbered slot.
    Compare that to the boarding lanes at United (I’m guessing DL and AA are much the same). Passengers in Priority group 2 start lining up 30 minutes before boarding will ever be called. That line can be 50 passengers long when group 2 is finally called. I’d much rather have the SW system.

  13. I’ve occasionally flown low-cost carriers for very specific reasons but hands down prefer to remain in my “cocoon of minimal interaction”. I swoop right thru, board the plane, enjoy my cocktail and arrive to my destination. Any delays, I call the dedicated desk and get rebooked without having to stand in line or deal with someone at the counter who knows less than me about my options.

  14. Yes, I worry about the redundancy network in LCC and tend not to fly them unless there is little choice. For example, last February, my husband and I had a very nice, inexpensive flight on Norweigian Airlines from JFK to the French Carribean island of Guadaloupe.

    When booking a legacy carrier, I make certain that I have an alternate, later flight to my destination in case of delays or cancellation. This strategy won’t work if my alternate is fully booked but, so far, this hasn’t happened.

  15. Lack of redundancy? Didn’t this used to be called customer care?
    Let’s face it, flying anything less than domestic first class these days is misery. There is little chance of personal attention on the ground or in the plane (which is likely to be parked on the tarmac.)
    The experience is largely about outsmarting or persevering with apps, phone centers, snaking lines, hub scenes, TSA shaming. Or, if you do get to deal with a human being, he/she is SO obviously bored to death with you as the Nth case number needing help, you might as well be dealing with one more of the robots.
    Travis, yes indeed you are a better man than I if you like dealing with the hoi polloi and if you manage to keep some perspective on the process.
    It used to be said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. I may be impious and just not tough enough, but I think of that often while traveling domestically.
    My pleasure in domestic travel has been entirely replaced by dread.

  16. By ” clientele” you mean white nationalists and nazis? They have to get to Charlottesville some way.

  17. In addition, Spirit is simply less reliable operationally than the legacy carriers. So the chance of IRROPS is higher with Spirit.

    (At least those of us who know the miles and points game can often use miles on a legacy carrier as “plan B” at much lower cost than a cash walk-up fare.)

  18. @ Neil

    What you’re missing about Matt’s post is that for Southwest, you are obligated to line up else you may find yourself at the back and in the middle. With the legacy carriers, you don’t have to line up because your seat is assigned. Hell, you can stay seated in the waiting area stuffing your face with pizza and beer until all the sheep have boarded, and then slowly make your way to the gate.

  19. @ Neil

    What you’re missing about Matt’s post is that for Southwest, you are obligated to line up else you may find yourself at the back and in the middle. With the legacy carriers, you don’t have to line up because your seat is assigned. Hell, you can stay seated in the waiting area stuffing your face with pizza and beer until all the sheep have boarded, and then slowly make your way to the gate.

  20. Steve – but with the legacies, if you board late, there may not be any overhead bin space for your carry-on. (I’m with Neil – I prefer Southwest for my domestic travel.)

  21. I don’t fly Ryanair here in Europe. On top of the obnoxious advertising (making fake claims that they were looking at “standing” seats or that they would charge for toilets), the people flying it and the staff are unbearable. Plus, they fly to ridiculous locations in some instances (Beauvais instead of Paris or Hahn instead of Frankfurt for example).

    I’ve been in a situation for last minute flights where they were (WAY!) cheaper than legacy here. My manager insisted I book with them and told me it was Ryanair or no travel, needless to say I called his bluff .

  22. Spirit also has fairly thin scheduling, often only once a day.

    But at least they finally joined Pre-Check.

  23. @ UAPHIL

    That applies to Southwest as well. If you board late with them, there is a damn good chance there won’t be any overhead bin space left. So I don’t see how that is a check mark in Southwest’s favor?

  24. Steve – agreed. With any airline, you need to board reasonably early to assure yourself of overhead bin space. (So that is not a reason to book away from Southwest.)

  25. @ UAPhil,

    It depends on how you travel. Not everyone here travels with monster size carry on bags. I travel with a small backpack and laptop bag, both of which can be placed directly under the seat in front of me. In my case, I prefer boarding with the legacies because of a seat assignment.

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