Airline fees have reached absurdity, and now there is a “Passenger Usage Fee” for simply using a Spirit Airline ticket not purchased from the airline at its ticket counter. I’m sorry, but this is a fee too far; some others agree and have filed a class action suit in federal courts.
I sent an email to Spirit Airlines asking about this fee. I asked whether this fee was indeed optional since its place in the listing didn’t make clear whether or not there was some way to avoid the fee.
I received a reply:
According to Misty Pinson, spokesperson for Spirit Airlines, “It is not charged to customers making reservations at Spirit’s airport ticket counters.”
I have also spoken with the enforcement division of DOT about this fee and was told that as long as there is a way to avoid the fee, it is considered optional. This is a discussion that will continue with DOT via the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protections (ACACP) and through the Consumer Travel Alliance.
In the meantime, lawyers have slapped Spirit Airlines with a lawsuit claiming that their “usage fee” is nothing more than an addition to the basic airfare because avoiding it is so difficult.
Lawyers from the firm Podhurst Orseck say in a release that the airline “has intentionally and systematically targeted consumers with deceptive advertising and pricing practices for years.”
“It’s an illusory fee,” firm partner Kathy Ezell told The Huffington Post. “It’s really a tack-on to the fare, it’s to increase their profits and, under the DOT regulations, it should be disclosed so that the customers know what they’re paying for the fare. Instead they have chosen to embed it with other fees that are either required or sanctioned by the government — and they give it an innocuous name — so that it sounds like one of the other fees.”
The suit alleges that Spirit raked in at least $40 million in usage fee charges in 2011 alone. The fate of the class action suit is questionable because of federal preemption factors and the difficulties of getting class action standing in federal courts; however, this lawsuit is putting Spirit Airlines on notice about their ancillary fee charges.
What the heck is this “usage” fee for?
Spirit says that the fee is charged to provide website and phone service for passengers to purchase their tickets! That’s novel. I guess we can expect a new fee to pay for electricity that can be avoided by purchasing tickets in Fort Lauderdale by full moon between 1 and 2 a.m. (That way Spirit can claim and DOT will be able to accept that the fee is legally “optional,” because it can be avoided.)
The CEO of Spirit Airlines claimed that these fees are actually good for consumers.
Our optional pricing structure has saved customers millions by allowing them to pay only for what they want. Many fly Spirit who could not afford to fly on other airlines — and our “optional pricing” model creates this opportunity.
The total price, fare plus fees, paid on Spirit today has grown at a significantly smaller rate than total prices on other airlines and far less than increases in fuel costs. Disclosure is about showing what you pay, which Spirit does very clearly and consistently. But disclosure should also be about showing what you can avoid paying for things you don’t need. This happens a lot on other airlines, but not on Spirit.
Of course, Spirit avoids the fact that in many cases the “opportunity to fly” is removed or significantly curtailed once the “optional fees” are added into the airfares. In presentations before ACACP, the American Society of Travel Agents provided examples where Spirit Airlines appears to be the least expensive way to fly before adding in ancillary fees when comparing costs to fly with American Airlines and JetBlue. However, after fees are included, JetBlue and American ended up costing less than Spirit Airlines.
Here is an infographic that NerdWallet.com has created about the Spirit Airlines universe of extra optional fees.