I flew on the infamous Spirit Airlines for the first time and saw how well no-frills can actually co-exist with safety – here's what it was like
I took my first flight on Spirit Airlines on Monday, traveling from Chicago to New York on one of the carrier's most competitive routes to see how the infamous carrier maintains a no-frills business model during a pandemic. Spirit isn't blocking middle seats but is requiring face coverings to fly and enhancing cleaning practices to ensure peace of mind when it comes to health and safety. The flight was uneventful but the airline surprised me with a friendly and attentive cabin crew, as well as by keeping its in-flight service while others are abandoning it. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In all my years of flying, I've managed to avoid flying on Spirit Airlines, until now. Spirit is arguably America's most loved to hate airline and after just one flight, it's clear why passengers might not enjoy the experience. Cramped seats, no in-flight entertainment, and a tired-looking plane all contributed to a lackluster flight. But with the airline offering bargain-basement deals like $27 round-trip between New York and most major cities in Florida and $50 round-trip between New York and Los Angeles, it's also no secret why passengers keep coming back. Despite it's less sterling reputation, however, Spirit isn't taking pandemic flying lightly with a safety policy comparable to its full-fare competitors. Middle seats aren't being blocked on its aircraft but Spirit has stepped up with important safety measures like requiring face coverings and installing safety features at airports. I flew on Spirit to see just how well its low-cost business model of base fares can co-exist with the hyper-safe environment that the pandemic has inflicted. My journey took me from Chicago to New York on the carrier's Airbus A320 aircraft. Here's what I found on my first-ever flight on Spirit Airlines, during a pandemic. SEE ALSO: I flew on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic and came away impressed by how well the largest low-cost US airline handled social distancing DON'T MISS: Another US passenger airline will now also fly cargo freighters as more carriers court package hauling as a new source of revenue I was aware of the airline's reputation – of course – but having flown ultra-low-cost airlines in the past with success, I was ready to give this new to me airline a shot with an open mind.
I decided to take it easy for my first flight on Spirit, with a quick, one-flight journey from Chicago to New York.
Spirit uses Terminal 3 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and despite multiple afternoon departures, the check-in area was desolate.
I was hit with the first of many potential fees at booking when the airline told me about the $10 charge to print a boarding pass at the airport ticket counter. Using the kiosk to print one or retrieving one via the mobile app, however, is free of charge.
Unlike most airlines I've flown on other trips during the pandemic, Spirit wasn't blocking any kiosks to ensure distancing.
But all the ticket counters did have plexiglass partitions separating the agents from passengers for an extra layer of protection.
The welcome screen for each kiosk had visuals of the new practices being undertaken by the airline to provide clean and safe flights during the pandemic.
One side detailed the new airport cleaning practices – wiping down kiosks, placing hand sanitizer stations next to boarding doors, and disinfecting ticket and gate counters, among others.
The other detailed new aircraft policies and procedures like requiring face coverings, disinfecting via fogging, and wiping down surfaces.
As I continued the check-in process, Spirit didn't hesitate to try to sell me add-ons to my flight, known as ancillaries. The tax-free revenue often brings in more cash than the fares on each ticket.
On offer were expedited privileges during boarding and at the security screening checkpoint, with reasonable prices for each compared to the airline's full-service competitors.
I was automatically assigned an aisle seat for the flight, a small victory since I didn't pre-pay for a seat assignment. Spirit was already doing better than American, which assigned me a middle seat for a flight in June when full rows were open elsewhere on the plane.
Read More: American will start filling planes after doing the least of big US airlines to protect passengers. Here's what it was like to fly the airline during the pandemic. By the time I checked in, seats were going for $20 and more.
Scattered in the check-in and gate area were measurement stations for bags since a carry-on doesn't come included in the price of a ticket, only a personal item like a purse or backpack. And Spirit enforces that rule, as I later saw at the gate.
Boarding pass in hand, it was time to head to security. I couldn't use the TSA PreCheck lane as Spirit didn't put it on my boarding pass – despite being enrolled in the program. I've found this to be a common problem with low-cost airlines, especially if you don't buy any of the add-ons they sell.
The airline shares Terminal 3 at O'Hare with American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Iberia, and Japan Airlines, among others, so having PreCheck would've been ideal to get through quicker.
The standard screening didn't take too much longer, though it did mean spending more time in one of the unavoidable bottlenecks of an airport where social distancing is near-impossible.
Spirit passengers, unfortunately, don't get to walk to their gate through the iconic concourse made famous in the movie "Home Alone."
Instead, Spirit departs from the L Concourse...
All the way on the other side of the terminal from the security checkpoint.
Including our flight to New York, Spirit had seven departures in the afternoon from Chicago.
Our aircraft was this six-year-old Airbus A320 complete with sharklet wing add-ons and painted in Spirit's "base fare" livery resembling a New York City taxicab.
The gate wasn't overrun with safety features but true to its message on the kiosk, there were some new additions like plexiglass partitions at the counter...
A hand sanitizer dispenser...
And social distancing placards on the floor.
The crowded seating area indicated that it wouldn't be the empty flight back to New York for which I had hoped and with Spirit not blocking middle seats, I thought for sure I'd have a seatmate.
Spirit is the only ultra-low-cost carrier flying between Chicago and New York's LaGuardia Airport, catering to leisure travelers and competing against heavy hitters like American, United, and Delta on the business traveler-dominated route.
Boarding commenced as normal around a half-hour prior to departure with Spirit loading the plane in zones.
Zone 1 went first – which included those who had paid for a seat assignment – followed by Zone 2 – for those who bought expedited boarding or have the Spirit credit card.
Zone 3 comprised of those sitting in the back of the plane with Zone 4 – for those slightly closer to the front – boarding last in a quasi-back to front-style boarding. Unlike the gate area, the jetway had no social distancing reminders whatsoever.
Face coverings were required in both the airport and on the plane, with flight attendants reminding passengers to keep them on for the duration of the journey.
The first two rows housed Spirit's version of business class, known as "Big Front Seats." Flyers who purchase one of these seats get to board earlier, stretch out, and recline in comfort, though not much beyond that.
The rest of the plane consists of standard economy seats with "deluxe leather" and seat pitches as low as 28 inches.
Source: SeatGuru Spirit doesn't offer any in-flight entertainment so the seat-backs and literature pockets are quite bare – though WiFi is coming soon.
Source: Spirit Airlines The airline is the epitome of no-frills with zero seat amenities of which to speak, not even a proper headrest.
If entertainment is a big factor, I recommend getting the window seat and pre-loading content onto a device.
The recline debate also isn't an issue on Spirit as seats are pre-reclined.
I was seated toward the back in 26D, an aisle seat.
Though it was a tight fit, I had no complaints or concerns regarding the cleanliness of my seat area.
Some nearby tray tables showed signs of wear and tear but the entire interior of the aircraft looked tired.
The middle seat next to me was also a "lucky seat" and the occupant was entitled to a prize. Unfortunately, the seat stayed empty.
Above my row was the standard air vent and personal reading lamp setup, with the former being quite strong.
The flight was reasonably full but empty enough that most could have the middle seat free. Flight attendants were doing their best to move passengers around to allow some distancing on the plane and told me that they do so when they can, even though Spirit isn't formally blocking middle seats.
The cabin crew was the most impressive part of the flight as not only were they incredibly kind and attentive but took it upon themselves to move passengers around to create more space.
And when one flight attendant noticed a taller passenger was having an issue with the lack of legroom, she offered to move the passenger to the exit row free of charge.
You can often judge an airline by what they warn against during the safety briefing and on this flight, Spirit flight attendants specifically stated that although they're serving alcohol on the flight, passengers will be cut off at the crew's discretion and shouldn't be "offended" if they are.
We managed to depart from the gate on-time with no arrival delays into LaGuardia Airport, a rarity for this route before the pandemic.
During boarding, the lead flight attendant stressed the importance of wearing face coverings during "all phases of flight," and outlined specifically what those phases were so there'd be no confusion. We ultimately didn't have an issue with a passenger not wearing a mask.
After take-off, I was shocked to see the beverage cart rolling down the aisle as most airlines have discontinued or heavily modified their in-flight service. Even alcohol – which most airlines have done away with during the pandemic – was on offer.
Spirit is also one of the few airlines that charges for water and that's because it's sold by the bottle, not by the cup.
The meager legroom felt fine at first but once we got airborne, it became really uncomfortable when stretching out.
Luckily, it was only a two-hour flight.
And the legroom wasn't the only area lacking in space with the restroom's quite tight, as well.
The flight was uneventful and we landed without issue in New York just a few hours later. And soon as we got to the gate, every passenger – it felt – stood up at once to try to get off of the plane as soon as possible, disregarding any attempts to social distance.
Love them or hate them, low-cost airlines democratize the airline industry so more people have the means to travel. While Spirit won't be my first choice moving forward, I wouldn't have any problem taking them again if the price is right, even during the pandemic. For longer flights, however, I would be willing to pay more as the seats were not conducive to comfort after long stretches due to the lack of legroom and even a headrest. I definitely got what I paid for but what really made Spirit shine was the helpful and accommodating cabin crew. Instead of strictly sticking to the seat map and letting passengers sort the rest out, the flight attendants proactively moved passengers to make sure that the flight was an enjoyable experience, which is more than I can say for some of the other airlines I've flown since March. The crew – along with Spirit's enhanced cleaning procedures and practices – proved that low-cost doesn't necessarily mean less safe, especially as major airlines like United and American aren't blocking middle seats either. There is some responsibility on the part of the passenger to ensure distancing as it was clear not everybody on the plane was overly concerned but that can be found on any airline.
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