The subject line on the email from Spirit Airlines at 5:20 a.m. Friday scared me. I was due to fly from Las Vegas to Dallas in two hours and figured the flight was canceled, a victim of the budget airline’s multiday meltdown.
It wasn’t. The letter from Spirit was an apology, complete with a $50 voucher, for what happened on my “recent rip,” though I had zero issues on two Spirit flights the day before.
The pilot on the Las Vegas to Dallas flight also apologized, even though the flight departed early.
“If you’ve been affected by delays and cancellations over the last week, we do apologize,” he said before takeoff. “We understand your frustration. Thanks for hanging in there with us.”
Spirit CEO Ted Christie has been on an apology tour, too, telling USA TODAY Saturday he will continue to say sorry after more than 2,000 flight cancellations in a week. The airline scrubbed as many as 60% of its flights on the worst days as it struggled to get flight crews where they needed to be.
“Did we fail our guests over that period of time? We absolutely did,” he said. “And we gotta fix that, and we gotta earn that back. It starts with an apology, but what it really is: We’re going to earn the trust.”
It might be too late for some passengers. Spirit’s operational meltdown inconvenienced and frustrated tens of thousands of travelers, but it upended the lives of some, who were stranded for days by multiple cancellations at their own expense, and forced others to miss important events.
‘I felt like I was held hostage by Spirit’
LeAnn Hilton was ordering a car service from Manhattan to Newark, New Jersey, last Tuesday when she decided to double-check her seat assignments on Spirit. The 35-year-old consultant had been in New York for a week with her three kids for medical appointments for the youngest, a 7-month-old daughter with a heart condition, and their first vacation since the pandemic.
The reservation said her flight to Austin, Texas, via Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was canceled. An email from Spirit soon confirmed it but didn’t mention anything about booking her on another flight.
Hilton kept calling Spirit until someone answered. The agent delivered bad news.
“Well, I can get you out in two days,” Hilton said the agent told her. “I said, ‘Well, I need to go home tomorrow.’”
She saw a flight to Austin for sale on Spirit’s website, but the agent said it wasn’t available. She said she asked to be put on another airline but got a no. Ditto for meal vouchers or hotel vouchers for two nights.
“She said, ‘No, we’re not authorized.’”
The only option Hilton was given: a nonstop flight to Austin for four on Thursday morning. She thought about driving home but couldn’t find a rental car in New York or New Jersey.
Hilton said she found another New York hotel for two nights at $300 a night and made the best of it with the kids, planning outdoor activities around the city to be cautious of COVID-19. The girls ran out of underwear, so she picked up some at H&M.
“For two days, I was like, that’s not bad, we can do that,’’ she said.
Her attitude changed just after midnight on Thursday when another email from Spirit arrived. The nonstop flight to Austin was canceled.
She called Spirit again in the middle of the night and was on hold for 3½ hours before being disconnected. She tried again. (She also tried the airline’s online chat, reached out on social media and, given some work as a paralegal, even appealed to Spirit’s legal department during her ordeal.)
Hilton’s 10-year-old daughter grew so tired of the automated hold message telling passengers they are required to wear masks she cracked, “We require you to take us home.”
Spirit was in crisis mode by then, and when Hilton finally reached someone Thursday, the representative said the earliest Spirit could get her out was a flight on Sunday, five days after she was supposed to depart.
“It’s just like ‘Home Alone 2: Lost in New York’: I can only make it home after I level up with Marv in Central Park and fight with the pigeons,” she said. “I felt like I was held hostage by Spirit.”
The family finally made it home Sunday afternoon, but not without flight delays and Spirit’s insistence that she still needed to pay for seat assignments.
Hilton estimated she spent about $1,600 on New York hotels because of the flight cancellations, not to mention money spent on food, baby necessities and extra days of airport parking, pet sitting and house sitting. She also missed work.
Late Sunday, Hilton fired off a lengthyemail to Christie and other Spirit executives, detailing what she called a nightmare and seeking reimbursement for her expenses and a refund for their tickets.
An excerpt: “Though this does not capture the entirety of the nightmare, I share all of this because you can’t actually imagine, and I can’t fully put into words, what it’s like to be stranded in a foreign city, a vacation attempt ruined after a bad 18 months (during the pandemic), bleeding money you didn’t choose to spend, missing work, consoling small children in small hotel rooms, worried about an infant, not sleeping, stressed and spending countless hours calling an airline that doesn’t answer and sends one sentence emails ‘Your flight has been cancelled.'”
She’s not hopeful she’ll get anything, given the airline’s poor customer service when she was stuck in New York and is insulted by the $50 goodwill vouchers the airline sent to all passengers affected by the flight woes.
The last time Hilton had a flight issue on the way for treatment for her daughter, in July, Delta Air Lines automatically rebooked her on the next flight, gave her two meal vouchers, a hotel stay, a ride to the hotel, a refund of her seat upgrades and a $175 voucher.
“Spirit doesn’t care at all, and (that) is a good reason to never travel a budget airline,” she said. “When things go wrong, they can’t or won’t fix it.”
A quick airport wardrobe change and $150 Uber ride for a funeral after an all-nighter at San Juan airport
Ekow Yankah got word of funeral plans for a family friend when he was on vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with his family in late July.
The law professor scratched his plans to return to New York from San Juan and bought a ticket on Spirit, so he could make it to Michigan for the service on Sunday, Aug. 1.
He was booked to fly from San Juan to Fort Lauderdale, Spirit’s biggest hub, late on Saturday, July 31, and from Fort Lauderdale to Detroit early the morning of Aug. 1.
His longtime friend whose dad had died unexpectedly was going to pick him up at the airport for the drive to East Lansing for the funeral.
Yankah sensed he was in for a rough day at San Juan International Airport when he arrived before lunch to drop his wife and children off for their Spirit flight. They don’t usually fly the budget airline, but the flight times lined up with other family members’ flights. The check-in line was 2½ hours long, and they barely made their flight to Boston, he said.
Yankah spent the afternoon working at an airport business center before check-in for his 10:30 p.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale. He emerged around dinnertime to find out his fight was canceled, sending him scrambling to find a way to get to Detroit in time for the funeral. Yankah said he waited in an interminable line to get a new flight and, hopefully, a hotel and meal voucher.
He lucked out and got a flight to Orlando for 4:30 a.m. Sunday. He pressed the agent for vouchers, and a supervisor told him he’d receive the vouchers via email.
The hotel voucher showed up in his inbox 20 minutes later, but it was for a hotel in Orlando, the city he was rerouted to, not San Juan. The meal vouchers wouldn’t work, he said.
“It was just a comedy of errors,” Yankah said. “It was so bad, it’s just hard to describe.”
He stood in line for hours to try to get another voucher, but the San Juan hotels were sold out, so he was stuck at the airport overnight.
He was starving and saw fellow passengers ordering UberEats, so he ordered from Burger King.
“It was like $25 for a Whopper meal,” he said.
When Yankah landed in Orlando the next morning for the flight to Detroit, he grew worried when he saw pilots at the gate but no gate agents.
The flight boarded, but passengers were soon deplaned because of a fuel leak on a plane next to his flight. His scheduled arrival into Detroit was getting later and later. He told his friend he would take an Uber when he finally landed.
Yankah started live-tweeting about Spirit because the experience had become so “comical” and frustrating,
“I am not someone who tweets about these things,” he said. “I’m not a 20-year-old cool kid that live-tweets everything.”
The flight landed in Detroit at 2:40 p.m., 20 minutes before the funeral started. Yankah did a quick wardrobe change in the Detroit airport and hopped in an Uber for the 90-minute ride. The cost: $150.
“It was the worst trip I’ve ever taken,” he said. “It was just a parade of incompetency. And it made me miss (most of) a funeral that meant a lot to me.”
He called Spirit’s $50 flight vouchers “laughable.”
“I should at least be made whole,” he said.
‘I was going to Costco and getting $2 pizza’
Nick Havener nabbed a cheap Spirit ticket to visit his Boston University college basketball teammate in Phoenix for a long weekend in late July.
The 25-year-old digital marketing professional was due to fly back to Santa Ana, California, on Monday, Aug. 2. He arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport around 1 p.m. for the 3 p.m. departure for the short flight.
About 30 minutes before takeoff, Spirit’s bright yellow plane was at the gate, but boarding hadn’t started, he said.
“The flight attendants seemed confused because they didn’t see their new flight crew,” he said. “They kept announcing on the intercom, ‘We’re still trying to get your flight ready.’”
The announcements came about every 15 minutes for 2½ hours, he said. Then something strange: Havener and other passengers were notified via email that the flight was canceled.
He got another email that he was booked on a flight at the same time on Tuesday. He scrambled and found a place to stay at a friend of a friend’s house. On a cot.
Tuesday, another email from Spirit: His flight was canceled. He tried to reach someone to get on another airline so he could get home but had no luck.
“My mom was a flight attendant for 20 years. I know that they can do that,” he said.
He called American to try to get on a flight, but the hold time was four hours. He didn’t book a flight on his own because the tab was $160.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds, and I didn’t have the ability to get my money back from Spirit right away,” he said.
He was rebooked on the same Spirit flight on Wednesday and that, too, was canceled. Three canceled flights in three days.
All he got from Spirit: a $7 meal voucher on the first day. He used it for macaroni and cheese at Panera Bread.
“I had to scramble in terms of eating every day,” he said. “I was going to Costco and getting $2 pizza.”
Havener heard about the $50 vouchers Spirit sent customers but has not received one.