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I flew Spirit Airlines and had a nightmarish 34-hour delay with terrible customer service, and I'll never use the airline again

Business Insider logo Business Insider 1/15/2020 Mark Matousek
a man looking at the camera © Mark Matousek/Business Insider

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I tend to have good luck with air travel. A significant majority of my flights leave and arrive on schedule, and I rarely have serious customer-service issues.

That has not been the case with Spirit Airlines. I've flown Spirit on three trips, and each time, the airline has frustrated me in a way that has nothing to do with the normal stresses of flying, culminating last weekend in the worst travel experience of my life.

My first flight on Spirit, in 2017, was delayed six hours because of an unspecified mechanical issue, causing me to miss a friend's wedding ceremony. Last year, I booked a Spirit flight for the second time and was surprised to learn I would be charged a $42 checked-bag fee for each of my two connecting flights on my journey from Austin, Texas, to New York. I had never seen an airline do that before, and it made me determined to never fly Spirit again.

But when I was booking a flight for a work trip to Las Vegas two months ago, Spirit provided the best of a number of suboptimal choices. I clenched my teeth and took another gamble on my least favorite airline.

It was a huge mistake.

My trip back from Las Vegas to New York last weekend was the worst travel experience I can remember, and it ended 34 hours later than scheduled. Not all of it was Spirit's fault, but the airline repeatedly failed at the parts that were under its control.

Spirit did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

I received no help with lodging after my flight was canceled

My return flight on Friday had connections in Kansas City, Missouri, and Orlando, Florida, with a scheduled arrival in New York about 11 p.m. But what seemed like minutes before my flight to Orlando was going to take off, my plane was called back to Kansas City International Airport because of concerns about freezing rain. Of course, Spirit didn't have any control over that, though boarding for the flight had started late, leading me to wonder if a more timely boarding process would have allowed us to take off before the airport closed.

Those of us with connecting flights were told to go to the check-in counter to rearrange our schedules. It was about 6 p.m., but I was told I would have to wait until the next day's 3 p.m. flight to Orlando, which meant I would land in New York 24 hours later than originally scheduled. I asked if I could be placed on another airline's flight that evening or earlier the next day but was told that was not an option since the delay was not Spirit's fault, which was understandable.

Less so was Spirit's failure to offer any kind of compensation for food, the hotel I'd have to book for that night, or transportation to and from the hotel. Once again, I was told that since the delay was not Spirit's fault, it had no obligation to help me. But two years earlier, when my Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to New York was canceled because of a snowstorm, Delta offered me a voucher for a hotel and credits that could be used toward a future Delta flight. While Delta had no control over that delay either, I appreciated those gestures. This time, the Spirit check-in agent didn't even offer suggestions for nearby hotels.

A mechanical issue made me miss my final flight again

The next morning, I attempted to check in for my flight and print a tag for my suitcase at one of Spirit's kiosks, but the machine said my flight would be departing from either a different terminal or airport (that message turned out to be an error) and that I should speak with one of Spirit's check-in agents. But there were no employees at the Spirit check-in desk for the next five minutes. (I should note that, because of my hotel's checkout time, I arrived at the airport 2 1/2 hours before my boarding time, much earlier than I usually would, and it appeared my flight was Spirit's first of the day. I was not the first person waiting in line to speak with a check-in agent, though.)

Once again, my flight boarded late, and we departed about an hour behind schedule because of a mechanical issue with my plane, which meant I would almost certainly miss my connecting flight. But when we landed, I received a notification saying my next flight had also been delayed. When announcing the gates the connecting flights would depart from (he gave the wrong one for my flight), one of the flight attendants made no mention of the possibility that my flight would leave before I could arrive at the gate. Based on the new departure time for my flight to New York, it appeared I had about 15 minutes to get to the gate to ensure I would not miss the boarding cut-off time, so I began sprinting through the terminal. I soon learned that I would need to take two separate shuttles to get to my next flight.

I arrived close to the scheduled cut-off time but hoped that because of the circumstances of my delay, I would still be let on the flight. Instead, I was told the flight had already left, at least 10 minutes before the new departure time I had been sent. 

Now I had to persuade the gate agent that the delay that caused me to miss my connection had resulted from a mechanical issue and was therefore Spirit's responsibility, rather than bad weather, as she first insisted. Thirty minutes after she confirmed with a supervisor that I was correct, I was given vouchers for food and a nearby hotel.

The gate agent said my checked suitcase had been sent to baggage claim since my new flight didn't take off until 6:30 a.m. the next morning, but I couldn't find it, so I went to Spirit's baggage-claim office, where I was asked for my bag tag. I then remembered it had been attached to my old boarding pass, which the gate agent had not returned. Thankfully, I always take photos of my bag tags in case I lose them. After 10 minutes, I was told my bag had been sent to Newark Liberty International Airport but would be identified and held there for my arrival the next day.

My final flight had no issues and landed in Newark, New Jersey, 34 hours after my originally scheduled arrival. My final task was to retrieve my suitcase, though it did not appear at first that Spirit had a baggage-claim office at Newark. The closest I could find was an unmanned desk near the baggage carousels with Spirit's logo on it, so I went to the check-in desk for help.

I was eventually taken to an unmarked baggage room, but my suitcase was not there, which sent me into a brief panic. About a minute later, I learned that, contrary to what had been suggested to me the night before, my bag was on the carousel. Relieved that I would not have to replace its contents, I left the airport convinced I would never fly Spirit again.

Poor customer service has convinced me to avoid Spirit in the future

I have never experienced with another airline anything close to the degree of incompetence, carelessness, and penny-pinching Spirit has demonstrated across my three flights with the airline. I understand why a budget airline wouldn't want to pay for a hotel after a delay it didn't cause, but in doing so, Spirit lost an opportunity to leave a positive impression on a customer in a moment of high stress.

I was consistently disappointed and frustrated throughout the weekend, sometimes for reasons within Spirit's control, sometimes for reasons out of its control. But only once did I feel like I was treated with anything more than indifference by the airline and its employees, and that was only after an employee had doubted me when I relayed my pilot's explanation for why my flight to Orlando was delayed.

Had Spirit's customer service exceeded my expectations, last weekend could have reversed my negative opinion of the airline, but I'm now even more motivated to never fly Spirit again, even if it means I have to take a more expensive and inconvenient flight. I'm aware of the compromises I have to make when flying a budget airline, but competent customer service shouldn't have been one of them. 

WATCH: 5 things to know before flying Spirit Airlines (provided by USA Today)

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