Flight of the Humble Bee

Travelling to faraway places – weeks at a time – sprouts a dual bloom of stress and excitement. The stress buds from the interruption of life at home; the need to keep things clicking and intact while away. The excitement buds from the unknown of what lies ahead; the anticipation of new sights and experiences. My keyboard tap-tap-tappings come from one of those faraway places today; Northern Europe, but it’s not my destination I’m keen to talk about. Instead I’m drifting a few days back to the start of the trip, to my outbound flight from Denver to New York. There, in a moment of rarefied air, I mingled for a few hours as a first-class passenger.

First Class. You know – the initial several rows on the airplane, dripping with white tablecloths, champagne flutes, and fluffy pillows. The wider, more comfortable seats. The dedicated flight attendant. Complimentary drinks, WiFi, movies, and magazines. Sounds so clean and expensive, with an almost regal attitude about it, don’t you think?

But what if I said, nein? What if I told you my first-class experience rated – yes – better than coach, but only with the slightest of differences? Wouldn’t you want to know why?

For starters, let’s deplane and go back to the terminal. A first-class ticket entitles you to a dedicated always-short line at the check-in counter. You already know that. Me, I missed that line. Whether the signage was on its morning break, or the harshly voiced commandant-of-the-queue distracted me with her “line up he-ah!”, or “print your boarding pass he-ah!”, or “do not leave your luggage he-ah!” (add German accent), I missed first-class check-in. Me and the “coachies” dawdled together in the snaky commoner line for a good forty-five minutes instead.

Fast-forward to the wait at the gate. My wife shrewdly pointed out the “Delta Club”, which I assumed was an exclusive members-only hideaway. Turns out, a business-class international ticket (i.e. the only reason I got first-class on the domestic leg) gets you and I access to the Club. Through a set of dark, imposing doors, past a couple of guards (who really do “guard”), we were treated to a light-but-no-cost breakfast buffet, comfortable chairs and tables, and blissful quiet (except for the gent next to me with the persistent cough). I hereby admit, the Delta Club was a sweet perk of first-class, if only to hang with less rats in the airport maze.

When a flight is even slightly delayed, and the passengers have nowhere to escape to outside of the boarding lounge, the ensuing chaos is a predictable study in human nature. No matter what kind of ticket you hold, “pre-boards” walk the plank first (defined as anyone needing extra time to get to their seat). After, Delta welcomes a mix of military, first-class (me!), and “Sky Priority” frequent flyers. But here’s the thing about rats. The line to board the plane is hopelessly windy and long, snaking between the walls of the concourse and the rows of boarding lounge seats. Try pushing to the front of the line – first-class ticket frantically waved above your head – when you’ve been standing in the back. Not-so-nice stares from other rats.

After taking my seat in 2a (or spoken with attitude, the second row), the complimentary glass of orange juice or champagne (or both please – mimosa!)… never materialized. Then I realized why. The logistics of serving drinks in first-class is virtually impossible when all the coachies board down the same aisle. No, this was not one of those planes where you “turn left” for first-class and “turn right” for everything else. One door. One aisle. All rats in the same maze after all.

<Cue disconsolate, sad music – solo violin or muted cello.  First-class is dying on the vine.>

How about breakfast? First-class meals are pre-ordered – on-line. That’s cool. Choose from blended steel-cut oats/quinoa with fruit, or an egg/cheese souffle with chicken sausage. My wife chose one and I chose the other – borderline-healthy airplane food requiring forks and knives! Not only that (insert smirk), turbulence prevented the flight attendants from serving anything in the main cabin, not even so much as a glass of water. Hope y’all bought some pre-packaged self-serve snacks before you boarded.  Ha!

But there it is. Attitude. Just when I think I can comfortably digest my first-class privilege; attitude rears its ugly head. Suddenly the passengers in row five and beyond are – ahem – somehow lesser. Not right. Time to pull my head out of – ahem – the clouds, and drift back down to reality. First-class may start out a little sweet, but the aftertaste can be a little bitter. Better to take my rightful place with the coachies from now on.

That’s (Not) the Spirit!

In the latest Skytrax airline review, Spirit Airlines received an overall rating of 3 (out of 10). Not so good, eh? I’d love to debate that grade with those who fly Spirit.  But what if those travelers also learned Spirit received a mere 4 for “value for money”. Value for money?  This is an airline that touts itself as “the leading ultra-low cost carrier in the United States”!  Have we been duped?

37 - duped

One of my family members flew Spirit earlier this week, and from her I learned the extent to which a business model can go “no frills”.  I thought Spirit simply attached a fee to everything outside of the ticket itself.  It’s more convoluted than that.  Best example: Spirit’s checked bag fee starts at $30 (paid at time of booking), increases to $35 (before online check-in), then to $40 (during online check-in), then to $50 (at ticket counter), and summits at $100 (at gate).  Pack carefully too, because an “overweight bag” begins at forty pounds (not fifty), and the fee-on-top-of-the-baggage-fee for overweight begins at $25.

Here are some other gotchas with Spirit; enough to consider your nearest emergency exit.  Choosing a seat yourself runs $50 and up (not so unusual with the airlines these days).  Carry-on bags that can’t be jammed under your seat cost you $55.  Boarding passes are $2 if printed at a kiosk; $10 if printed by an agent (must be premium-weight paper, huh?)  Unaccompanied minors are an extra $100 each way.  Finally, the drink you’ll need to survive this a-la-carte menu starts at $3, even if it’s plain ol’ water.  And don’t forget to press the flight attendant button or your beverage will never, ever arrive.

All of the above might read as criticism, but it’s apparent the Spirit model works for enough passengers to keep their planes in the air.  If you choose to fly Spirit you are – ideally -a person traveling alone, carrying only one bite-sized piece of luggage, and you don’t mind where or with whom you sit on the plane.  You also don’t care about comfort, because Spirit proudly reduces legroom to create “more seats for less airfare”.

I waged a little fares-war to see how Spirit’s “bare fare” stacks up to the competition.  I chose five of Spirit’s larger-city destinations and compared those fares to the next lowest carrier.  Here’s what you pay if you book a one-week round-trip flight from Denver starting April 15th:

  • Chicago – Spirit: $108, Next Lowest: $117
  • Atlanta – Lowest: $167, Spirit: $270
  • Dallas – Spirit: $78, Next Lowest: $86
  • Phoenix – Lowest: $130, Spirit: $150
  • Los Angeles – Spirit: $91, Next Lowest: $138

Percentage-wise, the best deal is to Los Angeles, where you only pay 65% to Spirit vs. the next lowest.  But are you going to fly all the way to the coast with a bag that fits under your seat?  Not likely, so add another $55.  Whoops – Spirit is no longer the lowest-cost option.

I’m not necessarily throwing Spirit under the bus here (even though a recent DOT report showed they had the highest number of complaints per-passenger among major U.S. airlines).  I’m not saying they don’t care about you the customer (even though my sister-in-law took three hours and five agents/supervisors/managers to get her storm-delayed flight re-booked).  I’m not even saying Spirit doesn’t run its business above board (even though the FAA recently slapped them with a $375,000 penalty for false advertising and refusal to reimburse customers).

What I am saying is do the math and know what you’re paying for.  Don’t be duped.

I’ll conclude with a bit of irony.  Three years ago my overnight flight to Florida was cancelled because I couldn’t connect through Houston on account of bad weather.  But I simply had to get to Florida by the next morning.  After exhausting all options the counter agent informed me my only option was out of another airport an hour’s drive to the north, and the only option out of that airport was… Spirit.  And I’ll be damned if Spirit didn’t get me to Florida the next morning – right on time.  So there you have it – I’m a fan of Spirit!  Er, that is, after exhausting all other options.