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How much complaining are Spirit Airlines’ passengers really doing?

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Nobody walks into a McDonald’s in 2014 under the misconception they are entering a steakhouse.

Some articles in the mainstream media can make it appear that passengers do nothing but complain about Florida-based “ultra” low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines. But as Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza has pointed out, there is “more to the story.”

Baldanza wrote a long email to The Dallas Morning News on Thursday after the newspaper ran an article pointing out that Spirit is the most complained about US airline, according to the number of complaints the US Department of Transportation receives about airlines. Baldanza does not deny the basic facts that Spirit is complained about more than four times more than the average US airline and that DOT gets a higher rate of complaints about Spirit than any other airline.

But in his email, which can be read in full here, he urges a closer examination of the numbers, which show that over the last five years Spirit has averaged eight complaints per 100,000 customers. “That means 99,992 customers [per 100,000] did not file a complaint,” Baldanza writes.

In a press release issued on the same day Baldanza sent the email to The Dallas Morning News, Spirit stated, “Over 99.99% of our customers did not file a complaint with the Department of Transportation in 2013.”

Baldanza points out that Spirit’s ULCC model—in which base fares are kept very low but fees are added for nearly all services, including both checked and carry-on bags—requires a “tradeoff” that will inevitably lead to complaints from some passengers. But Spirit’s consistent profitability, rapid growth (it plans to boost annual ASMs by 17% in 2014 and another 29% in 2015 at a time when most US airlines are keeping capacity growth in check) and high load factors (86.6% in 2013) demonstrate that a growing number of passengers are willingly accepting the tradeoff Spirit is offering.

“The reality is we’re seeing a growing acceptance of what we do,” Baldanza said at the Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit in Baltimore last fall. “Customers are choosing to nickel and dime themselves.”

Some of the complaints about Spirit may be coming from passengers who simply weren’t fully aware of what they were getting into when they booked tickets for a Spirit flight. Baldanza has often compared Spirit to a fast food restaurant such as McDonald’s, where people pay low prices for food from an a la carte menu and perform many services themselves, such as filling their cups with soda from machines and clearing off their table when they’re done. Looked at in this light, some of the complaints about Spirit are akin to complaining that McDonald’s offers worse service than a steakhouse.

But nobody walks into a McDonald’s in 2014 under the misconception they are entering a steakhouse. Part of what Spirit needs to do as it becomes a bigger factor in the US airline market (in which its market share is still below 2%) is simply educate the general public about how it operates. As Southwest Airlines has shown through the years, managing customer expectations is a key component of success for LCCs.

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