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Spirit Airlines Gives Us A Lesson In Really Bad Public Relations

Let’s say you’re running a mid-level airline during a time there’s a slow economy and one of your customers wants his ticket price refunded. Let’s add in the fact that this customer is a 76 year old Vietnam vet in the advanced stages of esophageal cancer. What do you do? Well, if you’re Spirit Airlines, you do the absolutely dumbest thing you can think of:

After a weekend of brutal publicity over its refusal to grant a dying Vietnam vet a $197 ticket refund because his doctor forbids him to fly, Spirit Airlines issued has a simple response:

“No.”

The terse, one-word retort from company spokeswoman Misty Pinson appears to have grounded any hope that Jerry Meekins, 76, of Clearwater, Fla., might get his money back. Meekins bought the ticket to Atlantic City last month so he could see his daughter before she had surgery of her own. But when his esophageal cancer left his immune system too ravaged for travel, all the airline offered him was another ticket.

“What are they going to do?” Meekins asked the Tampa Bay Times. “Fly my casket up to Atlantic City?”

“Spirit airlines is the most ruthless, uncaring airline that shows callous disregard for its customers and, frankly, [CEO] Ben Baldanza would agree with this statement about his own airline,” Kate Hanni, executive director of airline watchdog group FlyersRights.org told FoxNews.com. “They are a low-cost air carrier and all they want to do is grab those revenues at all costs. But when passengers need one ounce of customer service, forget about it!”

The airline, which has angered consumer groups with its pioneering charges for carry-on baggage and $5 fee for having a boarding pass printed at the airport, claim the no-refunds approach allows the airline to pass savings on to customers.

“At Spirit, we treat all of our customers equally and with respect,” the Fort Lauderdale-based carrier said in a statement Friday. “That means our non-refundable fares are non-refundable – for everyone.

“We are very saddened to hear about Mr. Meekins’ diagnosis and sincerely hope his health improves and that we have the opportunity to serve him again on his current ticket and many more flights.”

Yes, corporate flack, I understand you have rules and I even understand why you want to have those rules. But do you understand the concept of really bad publicity? There are always ways around these rules, all it would take it one manager with the brains to realize that this is not the kind of attention the company needs over a measly $197. Apparently he or she is on vacation this week.

I wrote about a similar situation back in November involving U.S. Airways. In that case, the airline relented and refunded the money. One would think someone at Spirit would end up doing the same thing in the end.

Found via Twitter

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Well the whole non-refundable ticket thing is a farce in the first place. Not many industries get by with such bad customer service as the flight industry.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Mataconis, you are so wrong. Spirit Airlines should be applauded for its amazing efficiency. How many companies can manage to get a full-blown PR disaster for a mere $197?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: Not only is Doug wrong about the efficiency issue, but he is also wrong philosophically. From an objectivist/libertarian viewpoint, the businesses only obligation is to itself and it’s stakeholders. As such, it should remain true to its principles in order to maximize the utility of its service to the people who value and can benefit from it. The fact that the customer in question only thought that he would be able to benefit from the service, while regrettable, is not the problem of the airline and the airline will not be able to maximize its utility if it give refunds to every sick passenger who comes along asking for one.

    Now personally, I agree with Doug that this is a public relations disaster for the airline and they probably should give this guy a refund. My point is that for all the blather along the libertarian line that Doug spouts he doesn’t have grounds to hold that opinion. I applaud him for the early steps of renouncing the nonsense that represents his economic/employment theory and encourage him to do more. Perhaps he could find a group of drummers to join.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  4. I’m not terminally ill, but I learned a lesson about these inflexible rules recently when I tried to get back $95 from Southwest. I had bought a flight a year earlier, but then found a cheaper one.

    I thought I’d have plenty of time to use the money. I’d actually been planning to use it to go to CPAC, but then was invited on another trip. So instead I thought I’d use it for yet another trip this June that I REALLY wanted to use Southwest for. But when I went to apply the unused funds, I found out that I couldn’t.

    The reason? The funds on the confirmation number have to be used to fly somewhere by one year from the purchase date. Not used to purchase a ticket for any date, mind you, used for a flight by the one year date. I explained to them that I wanted to use the money to purchase a ticket right then and there, but no luck.

    It was my fault, but it’s taught me to never leave unused funds that might end up in another company’s pocket.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. grumpy realist says:

    If you want even more of a howl, read the amount the airline is supposedly liable for in the case of your death (under the Warsaw Convention.)

    Can’t we get a decent high-speed rail going here in the US? I miss the Shinkansen….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. It may be a PR disaster, but it remains to be seen if there’s a business cost involved. There was a study a few years ago showing that the majority of passengers will stop traveling with an airline over a prive difference as small as $3 dollars. So as much as people complain about lousy service, they’ve repeatedly shown that they’re completely unwilling to pay for a better travel experience. All they really care about is cost, cost, and cost.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. al-Ameda says:

    After a weekend of brutal publicity over its refusal to grant a dying Vietnam vet a $197 ticket refund because his doctor forbids him to fly, Spirit Airlines issued has a simple response:
    “No.”

    Wow, that deserves the Reverse Nobel Prize for Marketing.

    Michael Reynolds is exactly right:

    How many companies can manage to get a full-blown PR disaster for a mere $197?

    That’s great value right there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. legion says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: On paper, your sarcasm is actually correct… but one of the many major reasons I detest Objectivism is that so many of its actual practitioners assume that the only reward people care about or work for is money. The entire concept of doing something for any reason other than cash payment is openly derided.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. ex-TSA agent says:

    Da roolz is da roolz-no axcepshuns!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. merl says:

    @Michael Merritt: at least you didn’t have to go to CPAC

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I must be in the1% that doesn’t work like that….am perfectly willing to pay higher prices to fly on non-US flights because crappy service really gets to be a hassle when you’re 14 hours over the Pacific….long live JAL!

    I do (sorta) go for the cheaper-the-better when it come to inside US travel, because in my experience they’re all equally poisonous. Haven’t get tried the really low-cost budget ones, however….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Jeremy says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: That’s not what libertarianism is about. Libertarianism is about maximizing individual liberty. Yes, that means people have the liberty to be dicks to other people…but not that they should. In fact, it’s better for business to be nice to people, because that will encourage them to come back and give you repeat business. It’s a no-brainer.

    @legion: I won’t speak much to Objectivism, because I agree with your points, but I do want to point out that libertarianism says nothing about profit being only monetary. In fact, most libertarians agree that a great deal of “profit” isn’t monetary–it’s just enjoying life. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of values in the past few decades. I blame cronyism and the stock market.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0