Spirit Now Testing Consumers With New Carry-On Fee

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This month, Spirit Airlines began its new policy for charging passengers for carry-on bags that don't fit under the seat in front of them. So far, some travelers on the airline not amused. Will the new policy last, or has Spirit made a big mistake?

Although such a fee seems like a flagrant attempt by an airline to further nickel-and-dime its customers, there are some reasons why flyers could actually be better off with such a policy. Ultimately, it will provide allow for greater spending discretion, lower base ticket prices, and a smoother airport experience with fewer delays. Once customers get used to the change, it will also allow for greater transparency in pricing. But will customers learn to embrace the change?

An article from USA Today cites some passenger disgust regarding the new fees:

"It's ridiculous for a carry-on," Pat Spadafora, a 65-year-old passenger from Florida, told the Press of Atlantic City (N.J.) on Sunday as she waited to board a Sprit flight Sunday.

Echoing those sentiments was Lori Gorzynski, a Spirit passenger flying out of Orlando. Speaking to Channel 13 News of Orlando, Gorzynski also called the fee "ridiculous," adding: "Why pay for carry-on? They already charge you for your flight. You have to pay for your luggage, to get checked and carry-on, it's just another fee process."

Of course, Spirit would likely respond that it's no more ridiculous than charging for food. An in-flight meal was also once thought of as an expected luxury when flying -- like a large carry-on item. But just as people got used to a world with no free lunch, so might they adjust to no free luggage. The article has another reaction:

And, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Spirit passenger Nicole Schneider tells WBMF News TV the fee caught her off guard on her Sunday flight.

"Obviously I have to pay it so I paid it, but it will probably hinder my chances of booking with Spirit again," Schneider told the station.

Of course, this is sort of a training exercise for some consumers. Anyone caught off guard won't be next time. And will passengers like Schneider really refuse to book again with Spirit? Maybe, but maybe not.

For example, consider a one-way airline ticket from New York's La Guardia airport to Fort Lauderdale, FL on Friday, November 5th. According to Expedia, the lowest price other than Spirit is with Delta, which is $114 after taxes and fees. With taxes and fees, a similar itinerary on Spirit would cost is $80. That means Delta's price is $34 more, but includes a free carry-on item, which would cost a Spirit passenger $30 with online check-in. Under various scenarios here, Spirit is cheaper than Delta:

  • If only bringing a small carry-on item that would fit under the seat, the flyer would save $34 with Spirit.
  • If bringing a large carry-on that won't fit under the seat, the flyer would save $4 with Spirit.
  • If brining one checked back, the flyer would save $38 taking Spirit (Delta charges $23 vs $19 on Spirit).

And so on. As you can see, in this case, despite the carry-on fee, there are clearly some consumers who will be better off with Spirit based on pricing alone. It just depends on the situation.

Of course, there's also the possibility that other airlines will follow Spirit's lead. We saw this happen very quickly with checked baggage fees. If you've ever sat on a plane, waiting for the flight attendants to find room in the overhead compartments for dozens of little suitcases, then it isn't hard to imagine how much airlines would love to rid themselves of so many carry-ons. For now, no one else is joining Spirit with these new carry-on fees, but you can bet that they'll be closely watching how the policy works out over the next several months to see if they should adopt similar measures.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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