Bad Check

Last week I flew to Indiana for a conference, connecting briefly through Chicago O’Hare.  After finally touching down and exiting the tiny plane, I noticed a cluster of passengers right there in the jet bridge, waiting for luggage to be brought up the stairs.  I headed to the baggage claim area instead, where the rest of us watched the carousel lumber round and round.  The minutes passed interminably as the belt continued its relentless rotation; passengers leaving one-by-one with their bags.  Suddenly everything came to a grinding halt, and the carousel let out its big, mechanical sigh.  I found myself in the quiet and solitary confinement of an empty claim area.  My luggage?  Nowhere to be found.

The airlines advertise a ton of performance statistics, but here’s a new one on me: rate of mishandled bags.  For every passenger who files a lost-luggage report, the carrier gets a ding.  That ding is well-deserved, representing the stress of lost luggage, the hassle of filing a report in one of those stuffy little offices, and the inevitable delay reuniting with your bag.  Not that it happens very often.  According to the following chart – part of a Wall Street Journal article – American Airlines reports a mere 2.8 incidents of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers.  But hold the phone, folks – there’s more to the losing than meets the eye.  Turns out American (and most other airlines) avoid a lost-luggage ding if they alert you to the “mishandled” bag.  Today’s smart tags make it easy to track the bag (even if it’s heading in a different direction than you are).  So that bit of information – proactively communicated in a text or email – avoids a bad stat.  And that’s why the chart below shows a dramatic improvement in August.  American Airlines started its proactive notification process the month prior.

I don’t choose my airline according to “rate of mishandled bags” (or any other statistic for that matter – it’s all about the ticket price), but I have observed the adjusted behavior of others.  Carry-on baggage is all the rage now, in brand-new shapes and sizes.  Look around next time you board a plane and count how many passengers violate the airline’s carry-on policy.  The person with the roll-y suitcase and oversized backpack is probably one bag over the limit.  The person with the valise slightly larger than the space “under the seat in front of you” probably should’ve checked it.  But chances are the flight attendant won’t make a fuss, at the risk of negative publicity.

Speaking of backpacks, the oversized versions seem to be all the rage these days; far surpassing the number of “wheelies” and “over-the-shoulder’s” so common with past generations.  It’s like everyone’s back in high school again.

Here’s another trend.  Passengers carry-on instead of checking, knowing there isn’t enough room in the overhead bins.  Once the bins are full, they surrender their bags at the end of the jet bridge instead, for attendants to tromp down the stairs and into the belly of the plane.  After landing, the process works in reverse (thus the cluster of passengers on my recent flight).  But credit to these travel warriors; they avoid $50 of baggage fees, as well as smashing bags into overhead bins (which always brings to mind square pegs and round holes).

One more trend.  Airlines are shifting the baggage-check process into the hands of travelers.  At self-check-in, the kiosk now dispenses a bag tag along with the boarding pass.  You attach the tag to the bag.  You haul the bag to the belt, where – in some cases – you place the bag on the belt.  Congratulations – you’re an airline employee working free of charge.  You might even be helping the airline avoid a mishandled bag stat.

My own lost-luggage story had a happier-than-expected ending.  At the baggage service office, the attendant took my tag into the back, reappearing moments later with my bag.  Turns out my suitcase flew on another plane, arriving at my same destination before I did (explain that bit of magic, please).  Crisis averted, but instead I lost my excuse to go purchase a suitcase of new clothes.

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.