April 22, 2014 | Kendall Creighton SPIRITLESS Tuesday, April 22, 2014 Spirit Airlines – named after that which it crushes out of its customers? A new report has determined which U.S. airlines have the most customer complaints, and the airline at the top of the list is Spirit Airlines. A small airline with big fees. “The Unfriendly Skies,” a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, found that Spirit had the highest complaint rate from 2009 to 2013. It showed that Spirit had 9.440 complaints per 100,000 passengers in 2013, up from 6.75 complaints per 100,000 fliers in 2009. Spirit finished dead last in all of the survey’s six categories. The CEO’s response: “We have great customer service.” Of course, only 9.44 complaints per 100,000 travelers does not tell the true story, in fact, it is ludicrous. Where are the real numbers? How many complaints went directly to Spirit’s front line employees and to the company headquarters? Laura Murray with PIRG says, “They’re not likely to make that public and I doubt the DOT tracks it.” But she adds, “Some reporters have noted that DOT complaints are a fraction of the complaints filed directly with airlines.” To clarify, 9.44 per 100,000 didn’t just complain, these were people who dropped everything, put their lives on hold to write to the DOT and file a grievance because they were so teed off with Spirit Airlines. Spirit Sees Passenger Complaints as ‘Misunderstandings’ Spirit’s CEO, Ben Baldanza, says it’s all a misunderstanding. The airline is undeniably cheap, and therefore it should be no surprise that the service is poorly rated. However, passengers of their low-cost competitor, Southwest, complained less than any other airline. Ok, so the complaints were misunderstandings. You misunderstood that Spirit’s operating philosophy does not include treating you like a paying customer, or perhaps a human being. Are passengers merely self-loading cargo? In response to PIRG’s report, CEO Baldanza wrote a letter to journalists in cities where his airline flies, to explain its business model: “Offering our low fares requires doing some things that some people complain about-more seats on our planes with a little less legroom, no Wi-Fi or video screens, and no refunds without insurance; however, these reduce costs which gives our customers the lowest fares in the industry. Judging by the number of customers on our planes and repeat customer rate, most people like this tradeoff.” “The Customer Is Always Wrong” Campaign In Baldanza’s view, the Spirit business model makes perfect sense: Break down a traditional airline ticket into component parts, which allows customers to plan ahead and eliminate as many of those add-ons as possible. Baldanza goes so far as to draw an analogy between his airline and Dollar General stores, or fast food restaurants: “No one is surprised when they go to McDonald’s and they don’t see filet mignon on the menu,” he says. Except you would be surprised if McDonald’s charged $30 for a side of ketchup or a few extra napkins. Want to add luggage? Choose your weight and have it added to the price of your booking. Want to add an inflight meal? Choose your meal and have it added to the price of your booking. Want a choice seat, choose it and pay. But at the end of the booking process you get the total price and that’s it. Don’t sandbag us at the airport for check-in fees, boarding pass Spirit marketing department: Deceptive & Sexist? printing fees and airplane usage fees. It should not be up to the customer to calculate the rough cost, or make estimates on behalf of the airline upon accepting the terms and conditions and clicking OK. At this point of the booking process you should expect to be fully informed about the effective cost of your flight. Anything else is a bait-and-switch, morally indefensible and should be heavily cracked down upon by regulators. Which is why the airlines are lobbying so hard against regulations that would require them to disclose prices in a way that you could directly compare them, including fees. Luring someone with a promise of a deal, then overcharging them under various pretenses and ignoring their complaints looks like a classic rip-off, no matter the rationale you put behind it. No Free Lunch, (or Water) In the workplace water fountains must be easily accessible. Why not on an airplane? You’re literally a captive audience, unlike at a theater or ballpark. Of course, Spirit would never want to give up on something as lucrative and profitable as selling water. Keep the cabin hot and then sell 10 cent bottles of water for $3 each. A 3000% markup. They’re making a killing on it. Last year Spirit had 12.5 million passenger segments. If just 25% of those passengers bought the water, their net profit on that single item comes out to nearly $6 million. At their inflated prices it’s nothing but a gold mine. If water should be free, many of their passengers would just get water instead of paying their higher end prices for their other drinks. Estimates on their non-alcohol (sodas, juices, water) drink profit could be as high as $20-25 million per year. Making water free, that number could fall to as little as $5-8 million. A Miami-based law firm, Podhurst Orseck, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of Spirit Airlines passengers, seeking redress for deceptive fees charged by the ultra-low-cost carrier. In recent years, the lack of regulation and transparency has enabled airlines to generate significant revenue from extra fees. Spirit has been an innovator in the industry. The carrier is notorious for charging fees and was the first to charge passengers for carry-on baggage. Regardless how unprepared or naive the average passenger may be, our laws state water is a staple and must be provided as a basic service in public places. Yes, the FlyersRights readership is smarter and more prepared than the average, but this law is for a reason and is reasonable. Airplanes are included in the same category of places where a large number of people gather, and should be required to provide bathrooms and drinking water. No exceptions. The reality of being confined and being unable to get water elsewhere is reason enough. Even if you could come and go as you pleased, a “gathering space” of that capacity is still required to have restrooms and water if it were in just about any city or state in the USA. People Get Nickeled-And-Dimed NOT Because They Like It, But Because They Only Pay Attention To Headline Prices. FlyersRights has been on the warpath about DOT enforcing the rules requiring airlines to display the full price of a ticket, including taxes, before purchase. Spirit and other low cost carriers like to advertise a very low fare, but ambush you with hidden fees. Ever heard of the “passenger service fee”? It can run up to $25, and it’s a fee imposed by Spirit to book a ticket on their website. Yes, on their website. So every ticket is at least $10-$30 more than they advertise. The average Spirit customer spends $52 in fees. The problem is the other airlines have doubled their prices in the last four years, so Spirit is catering to the person who couldn’t afford to fly without Spirit. It might be cramped and awful, but it’s only a few hours of pain and then a week of paradise with relatives or a vacation, so they are 2010, Spirit pilots picket at FLL in a dispute over pay and benefits. selling every ticket. With the weak economy, it may be the only way the middle class can fly anymore. Next question, how do they pay their pilots? FlyersRights’ Challenge To Spirit FlyersRights President Paul Hudson responded: We challenge Spirit CEO Baldanza to back up his claim that Spirit is ‘misunderstood’ and actually offers good customer service by releasing the complaints received in 2013. It is patently absurd to claim that less than 1 out of 10,000 of its passengers have complained about Spirit customer service and that most customers are happy with its record breaking 74 “optional fees” on top of its advertised airfare. Unless Spirit does so in the next 30 days, the DOT and FAA should commence an investigation to determine if Spirit has violated its FAA certificate of public convenience and DOT regulations sufficiently to place it on probation as airline. Any airline with three times the DOT complaint rate of any other airline indicates a serious and systemic problems. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and other DOT brass need to start flying Spirit and other commercial airlines instead of US government aircraft. Read More: NPR -Spirit Airlines Taps A Nation Of Hate Fliers Read More: Consumerist Read More: FSpiritAir Letters Dear FlyersRights: My fiancé and I were flying to Michigan from Charleston SC, with a stop off in Washington Dulles. We went straight to gate C where we were supposed to from the A area. When we got to C the man there said “Your flight has been moved to another gate-D “That way” (as he points to the left. We had NO IDEA how far “D” was and think he should have offered to call them to say we were on our way or offer a ride. He knew how far it was, we had no clue. Even though we did not, we got there as fast as we could only to find the area empty except for a man at the desk who said he knew some people were missing (as it turns out, a mother with an infant daughter and her son along with us). Even though the plane was still there, they could not let us on. Our long wait to talk to”customer service” was answered with “There are no more flights to Detroit OR Charleston for the next two days. They are all booked solid.” That was it. No apologies, no ideas of what to do. Nothing. Nope. Just stuck there. She said “We announced the gate change so it is not our fault”. They might have, when we were out on the tarmac waiting to get my carry-on bag which was TOTALLY able to be on board and they had no reason to take it. But, even if we HAD heard it, we never could have made it to the gate. I went to the main customer service area. Here was their helpful ideas: “You can take a taxi ($45) To Reagan airport, catch a plane that is going to Phili (or Pittsburgh, I don’t remember) and that will fly to Detroit. But you have to leave NOW, or you won’t make it”. and I said “And if we don’t make it, I have lost another $45 and am stranded in Pennsylvania instead of here, right?” Right. We never would have gotten to the taxi in time. I saw where it was later when I rented my $588 rental car so I could drive the NINE HOURS to Michigan to get to my grandson’s Christening on time. They would pay for nothing or take responsibility for any of it. The gas, toll and time took a lot out of what should have been a joyous trip. Their lack of empathy was a whole new chapter. Do I have any recourse? Thank you, CR You can file a claim with the airline, with the DOT and your senators with a copy to Paul@flyersrights.org. I would check to see if the time between connecting flights was legal and gather any names possible and receipts to document your claim which should include compensation for your time as well as out of pocket expenses, vouchers or refunds for the flight that the airline caused you to miss. You can also file a small claims action against the airline but you should be aware that the airline has the right to transfer cases to US District courts where litigation expenses and delays can dwarf any recovery. Our proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights would have required the airline to allow your tickets to be used on another airline and or pay your alternative transportation. Paul Hudson President FlyersRights.org THE SUPREME COURT RULING IN NORTHWEST VS GINSBERG: AIRLINES CAN CANCEL YOUR FREQUENT FLYER MILES AT WILL, ESPECIALLY IF YOU COMPLAIN. NOW IT’S UP TO CONGRESS, THE DOT AND US. Consumer contracts, like airline contracts of carriage or frequent flyer programs, are known in the law as “contracts of adhesion” because one party (the corporation) writes the contract entirely in its favor and presents it to the other party (the consumer) on a take it or leave it basis. Because such contracts are so one sided, most states have doctrines or statutes providing that, a) the parties cannot act in bad faith in carrying out the contract, and b) there is an implied covenant of good faith. However, the April 2nd decision by the US Supreme Court in the Ginsberg case interprets the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) of 1978 as wiping out virtually ALL passenger rights in state consumer contract law. The Court unanimously ruled it’s up the DOT (which has authority by regulation to prohibit “unfair” or “deceptive” airline practices” but not adjudicate individual claims) and the Congress (which enacted the preemption of state law clause) to provide frequent flyers with any rights or protection from unfair airline practices and decisions. The frequent flyer contract in question said that the airline could change its frequent flyer program or eliminate any member’s benefits “in its sole judgment”. Nearly all airlines have similar provisions.And under the Supreme Court decision that includes canceling miles and denying benefits to a passenger for making complaints, for no reason at all, or even to relieve it from providing promised benefits like air travel, upgrades or other perks to loyal customers. The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0 proposed by FlyersRights.org in 2013 would restore and enhance airline passenger consumer rights under state and federal law, require reasonable notice of material changes in frequent flyer programs, and require airlines to report publicly basic data on the use of frequent flyer benefits, so passengers can compare airline programs and to eliminate deceptive and fraudulent practices. The airline attorneys and some in the media sought to portray Rabbi Ginsberg, without a hearing on the facts or any proof, as an abuser of the airline’s frequent flyer program. Below is an excerpt of a recent article by Rabbi Ginsberg. The courts refusal on technical legal grounds to hear or judge his case, ruling Rabbi Ginsberg and all other frequent flyers mistreated by airlines have no rights as a matter of law, should not be the end of the matter. Now it is up to Congress and the DOT to correct this injustice and prevent future ones. From I Won Because I Lost by Rabi S. B. Ginsberg, April, 2014: The process of standing in front of the Supreme Court of the United States of America and awaiting their verdict was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. It demands reflection and publication to share the messages that God so clearly set before me in order to teach me a lesson and help the greater world. For years, my family and I had been traveling extensively on Northwest Airlines (now merged with Delta). As one news reporter stated, I spent more time in the air than on the ground. As a result, I earned the highest frequent flyer status and received hundreds of thousands of miles, granting me occasional free flights, special in-flight service and other privileges. In 2008, due to alleged contract negotiations between Northwest and their baggage handlers, baggage arrival wait times became unusually long. Within a seven-month period, after waiting for hours to receive my luggage, I filed numerous complaints with the airline. I submitted these complaints by phone, cordially and respectfully, to Northwest’s dedicated customer service representatives. One day, out of the blue, a Northwest representative notified me that the airline had revoked my frequent flyer status and had erased nearly all my miles. I asked for my miles and privileges to be returned, but the airline refused, explaining that it had the right to revoke anyone’s frequent flyer status for any reason it saw fit. Annoyed that the airlines could do whatever they wanted to dedicated consumers when basic reasoning insisted otherwise, I filed a suit against Northwest for breach of the contract of frequent flyers and of the covenant of good faith and fairness between the consumer and the airline. The district court heard my case and dismissed it on the basis of President Jimmy Carter’s Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), which ceded to the airlines exclusive jurisdiction over price, route and service, barring government interference except in matters of security, traffic control, or civil business. The court ruled that revoking my frequent flyer status fell under the rubric of price and service and was thus in the airline’s control. I filed for appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, known for its consumer-friendly attitude and disdain for large, money-hungry corporations. The judges on two levels of the Appellate Court unanimously agreed to reverse the district court’s decision, citing breach of good faith, and demanding that the district court actually hear the case. The ruling of the Ninth Circuit would have been a blow to the airlines. It would have revolutionized the relationship between airlines and customers in favor of the customers, requiring the airlines to spend money, time, and manpower enhancing their customer service. Obviously unsatisfied with this ruling, Northwest appealed to the only court higher than the Ninth Circuit: the Supreme Court. Realizing the effect of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on the American people, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Northwest’s case. Former Solicitor General Paul Clement represented Northwest Airlines, and the formidable Adina Rosenbaum, member of the Public Citizens Litigation Group, represented me. A case heard by the Supreme Court consists of a lot of paperwork and a single hour of time in front of the judges, in which both sides explain their positions, present their documentation and answer numerous questions from all nine justices. After hearing the case, the Supreme Court can take between two and three months to reach a decision. They deliver their various verdicts on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10:00 AM, with no advance warning to the parties involved. Every Tuesday and Wednesday between the hearing in December and the announcement of the verdict, I wondered if the moment of my judgment had arrived. On Tuesday, April 2, 2014, I was teaching a seminary class at 10:03 when my cell phone vibrated. It was my attorney, Ms. Rosenbaum. Though I usually do not interrupt lessons for personal calls, with the class’s permission, I picked up the phone-and learned that the Supreme Court had unanimously decided to overturn the decision of the Ninth Circuit, ruling in favor of Northwest Airlines as per the ADA. When I hung up, my students were shocked to see that I had no negative reaction, that I wasn’t angry or frustrated or even sad. It was clear to me that the decision was God’s Hand, that my life was orchestrated by Him for my benefit. With the past few decades of my life spent learning, teaching, and reviewing the words of a great rabbi and my teacher, it wasn’t difficult for me to see that everything that happens to me is a result of my unique mission and serves as a springboard for my Service to God. One tremendous lesson I learned was that one matter can be seen in two completely opposite lights, and that both can be correct! The experienced judges of the Ninth Circuit are often just one step away from the Supreme Court itself, yet they unanimously came to the opposite conclusion of the Supreme Court justices. And, as trite as it sounds, don’t believe everything you read. It is unfortunate to see the amount of negative press that followed me and my series of trials, the majority of which insults and accusations were based on faulty or missing information. For example, “Ginsberg lodged dozens of complaints in a seven-month period.” The airline failed to mention that each complaint was lodged politely and calmly, after the airline requested feedback about their service. It also ignored the fact that in the years previous to this seven-month period, I had barely ever complained! Furthermore, it was rare to see a media outlet mention the dozens of positive comments and feedback that I sent the airline. Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org president, noted, “I am of the firm belief that if passengers who have been mistreated by airlines in frequent flyer programs now come forward in numbers, Congress and the DOT will take notice. Reform of national policy often requires losing in the courts in an unjust decision, before Congress or the Executive Branch will take note. I have seen this happen before.The federal appeals court decision in Air Transport Assn. v Cuomo, overturning a New York statute outlawing tarmac confinements led to the DOT Three Hour Rule in 2009. And the decision in Smith v Libya holding victims of state sponsored terrorism were barred from suing foreign states in US Courts led Congress in 1996 to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act to allow such cases (even making the new law retroactive to 1986). “Rabbi Ginsberg has done his part, now it is up to all of us frequent flyers. Send your examples of frequent flyer unfair treatment or abuse to Paul@flyersrights.org. Breaking New Ground! FlyersRights is opening a new staffed office in Washington DC! We are asking for yourassistance to raise $10,000 for this new workplace. We’re also seeking volunteers or summer interns. Please send a resume and cover letter to Paul@FlyersRights.org by April 30. Academic credit and stipends may be available. —————————————————————– FlyersRights depends on tax-deductible contributions from those who share our commitment to airline passenger rights. Thank you. or FlyersRights 4411 Bee Ridge Road Sarasota, FL 34233 Kate Hanni, founder emeritus of FlyersRights with Paul Hudson, president We value your thoughts and opinions! Please send to Kendallc@FlyersRights.org.