When Spirit Airlines pivoted to competing on price in the late 2000s, it quickly gained a reputation not only for operational inefficiencies but also for its in-your-face, take-it-or-leave attitude towards customer service.
Where other airlines charged by-the-package fares for the flight experience, Spirit pared back service and introduced an a la carte pricing model. Charging for the “ancillaries”—i.e., everything optional, including water—allowed Spirit to keep ticket prices down and appeal to price-sensitive travelers willing to sacrifice the usual amenities for a lower ticket price.
In the ensuing years, the unconventionality of this business model did not go down well with customers. Much of the flying public’s frustration with Spirit had to do with Loss Aversion. That’s the notion that the emotional disappointment of a loss is more extreme than the joy of a comparable gain. If finding a cheaper fare on Spirit felt delightful, giving up some—or all—of the savings to purchase ancillaries and surrender the savings felt utterly miserable.
Passengers felt ripped off by these seemingly hidden fees, especially when the true cost of flying Spirit ended up greater than what the initial ticket price led them to believe.
Spirit became quickly convinced that there was a perception problem—its customers didn’t fully understand how its fares work. Particularly, first-time customers blindly presumed that Spirit Airlines works the same way as other airlines. In reality, there were no hidden or excessive fees, and passengers could only pay for what they need or want. In 2014, the airline introduced its “Spirit 101” campaign to educate customers and alter their perceptions. With time and the increased adaptation of the “Basic Fare” model and curtailed customer service by every other airline, passengers’ expectations have since been right-sized. Spirit Airlines has come a long way, and its customer service has improved vastly.
Further studies on loss aversion have shown that a cascade of successive fees is worse than the cumulative: i.e., three ancillary fees that add up to, say, $70, feel a lot worse than a single $70 fee. Appropriately, Spirit offers a “Bundle it Combo” package.