Spiriting Away: Why Spirit is Rescuing the Industry

As many of us are well-aware (or damned well should be!), the airline industry ranks among the very worst groups for my favorite topic — customer service.  Airlines are now famous for using clever social media tactics to divert attention from customers’ real complaints and instead pretend to care about problems that are, ultimately, not the root of anyone’s concerns.  While some airlines fight back against a nonstop barrage of complaints that seem to be ever-mounting, one airline stands heads above the rest for admitting they have a problem.

Spirit Airlines recently launched a creative campaign called “Hug the Haters,” in which the US airline world’s lowest-fare carrier embraces the idea of funneling complaints its way by providing an incentive for those who voice concerns.  Complainers can be rewarded with 8,000 FREE SPIRIT miles to use on a future flight on the airline.  News outlets are consistently making a mockery of this decision, but it is puzzingly one of the best ideas the industry has seen for many reasons.

Acknowledging there is a problem is definitely the first step in fixing it.  Spirit, while its business model certainly would not allow it to combine its ancillary revenues back into a central ticket price, may or may not use this data at all.  I think even bigger than Spirit trying to remedy its own complaints, however, is the fact that it is setting the rest of the industry up for successes in each other airline’s customer feedback systems.  Essentially, Spirit is using this campaign to very publicly call attention to the fact that the other airlines are doing very little to admit they have some very grave customer service issues (of which many are related to unhappy employees).  Many kudos are due to Spirit in this regard.

Secondly, showing the public (even if it is through news media’s mockeries) that Spirit offers the bottom-of-the-barrel experience while saving you the most money possible is a brilliant way to set the bar low and own up to that low standard.  The number one concern while picking a ticket is certainly cost, followed by baggage arriving with the passengers and arriving on time.  Customer service concerns rate near the bottom of the list, with only 25% of respondents to a 2013 survey choosing customer service as their top concern when cost was not a factor.  By playing off of this non-primary concern (customer service) in order to drum up interest in what Spirit does better than any other United States airline (minimizing cost), Spirit’s marketing team surely hit a home run that will set a new course for American aviation.

The true brilliance is that this campaign, however, is for flyers of all airlines to put their complaints into Spirit’s comment box.  By looking at what concerns come up at United Airlines, for example, and comparing those to the concerns put in for recent travel experiences on Spirit, the airline can essentially know the quantity and quality of improvements that must be made in an effort to leave the bottom of the pack.  Of course, as mentioned above, this might not even be a concern for Spirit, who is certainly bound to profit from making fun of itself in a very public way and calling out its own unpleasant flight experiences.

Despite my open disagreement with current measurement techniques and rating standards for customer service, Spirit deserves many kudos for openly nodding its head to its own negative perception in the industry.  If other carriers come around the same corner and begin to outwardly admit their shortfalls, perhaps we — the consumers — might finally observe some positive change.  Until then, however, we will just need to bite the bullet and put our money where our mouth is if we want to fly in the most pleasant experience possible.  Or, perhaps, we should save our money and open our mouths to Spirit, and reap in a few thousand free miles while we are at it.

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