Spirit’s Flight Cancelations Catch The Attention Of The DOT

The nightmare at Spirit Airlines is showing signs of easing. Over the past week, thousands of flight cancelations have left tens of thousands of passengers stranded and Spirit’s reputation in tatters. Now, as recriminations start flying, the US Department of Transport is weighing in and monitoring Spirit’s response to the cancelations fiasco.

The DOT is casting its eye over Spirit’s response to last week’s mass cancelations. Photo: Spirit Airlines

Spirit starts to recover from a horror run of cancelations

Spirit’s perfect storm began in late July. Bad weather, staff shortages, and IT issues combined to paralyze the airline. Spirit canceled thousands of flights, including 2,000 in the first week of August.

That situation is now improving. Spirit canceled just 16 (or 2%) of its flights on Tuesday, according to FlightAware data. A further 62 (or 9%) of flights were delayed. Early last week, Simple Flying reported Spirit Airlines canceled 60% of its schedule on August 1, 71% on August 2, and 54% on August 3.

“We’re on the recovery,” Spirit’s CEO Ted Christie told USA Today on the weekend.

On the recovery or not, The Points Guy is reporting the Department of Transport (DOT) is “monitoring” Spirit’s response to the cancelations.

Spirit’s failure to help stranded passengers appears to be a sore point at the DOT. Photo: Spirit Airlines

What to do with tens of thousands of stranded passengers?

The critical issue appears not so much to be Spirit’s cancellations, but how the airline managed the process and its passengers. Exactly how many passengers were stranded is uncertain, but the numbers run into the tens of thousands.

Stories of abandoned passengers left stranded at airports without appropriate recompense or accommodation filled social media feeds and mainstream media.

But under federal law, if a flight is canceled or significantly disrupted, Spirit Airlines is legally obliged to find an alternative flight or refund the fare. It’s here Spirit Airlines appears to have fallen down and attracted the attention of the DOT.

Since Simple Flying last reported on Spirit’s cancelation, they’ve amended their website to reflect their obligations.

“We are rebooking Guests when possible on alternate flights to their destinations, directly with us and on other airlines, as available. We are also providing Guests with the option for a refund or a reservation credit for future travel,” Spirit’s travel alert states.

“If rebooking options aren’t available the same day, we may provide hotel accommodations when possible. To maintain guest safety, health, and welfare, we provide amenities and services such as ground transportation, arranging for alternate transportation to the Guest’s destination or meal vouchers, when possible.”

According to The Points Guy, United States-based airlines need to have contingency plans to deal with passengers when significant cancelations and delays occur.

Spirit Airlines has suffered reputational damage but will recover. Photo: Spirit Airlines

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

No long-term damage to the Spirit brand?

The reputational damage to Spirit Airlines is immense. But last week’s disaster is unlikely to put a serious dent in the airline’s long-term prospects. Spirit competes on price, and six months down the track, when faced with a $69 fare on Spirit to fly from A to B compared to $369 on United, many people will vote with their wallets and opt to fly Spirit. People will have long forgotten what happened in the first week of August.

With around 328 million people living throughout the United States, ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit will never be short of passengers. But as any regular user of low-cost and ultra-low-cost airlines know, when things go belly up, they really go belly up. Federal laws or not, last week’s mass stranding of Spirit passengers reveals one of the significant downsides of flying on $69 fares.