Spirit Airlines charges a usage fee for using your airline ticket, facing lawsuit

by Charlie Leocha on August 23, 2012

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.

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  • Jordan Bressler

    I’m thinking the only way that this is going to change is if prospective passengers vote with their feet. Seriously — if there are people still willing to pony up to fly Spirit, it will never change.

  • Brian

    I love these fees. The unwashed masses have pressured the airlines to strip away services and comfort in order to have lower fares. Let the hordes suffer on Spirit. Civilized passengers will stick to the front of the plane on a real airline.

    I hope Spirit adds new fees in 2013 to make people suffer more.

  • Anonymous

    P.T. Barnum said it best. In this case, the consumer is the sucker as they cannot figure out the ticket fee, carry-on fee, checked baggage fee, seat fee and so on result in a fare very close to other carriers. Saved anything? Not really, And for that you are flying on one of the worst-rated airlines for customer service and satisfaction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paulette.baker.77 Paulette Baker

    “Many fly Spirit who could not afford to fly on other airlines” is a good enough reason for me to use another airline.

  • Neal1

    Spirit is so deceptive in my opinion. I see filed fares in my system from BWI to Dallas for $78 round trip. Yet their cheapest base fare is $117 plus taxes, with no explanation on the difference. Yeap Spirit leaves you always wondering how can they, yet they keep doing it. Always trying to get their fare listed to come up first, yet it comes out more than should be. I just refuse to sell them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tpshuman Tim Shuman

    So, here’s my question. Who is actually flying on Spirit?

  • Anonymous

    Why not just send them the money and don’t bother to fly?

  • Puzzled

    I’m surprised Spirit didn’t charge Charlie a fee to respond to his questions.

  • madtad1

    OK, here’s my take on this: the reAson there are so many unbundled fees for everything is because the airline only have to pay taxes on the ticket price and none of the fees. Simple solution? Tax everything, including the fees, at the same rate as the ticket prices. Take away the tax-free $$ the airlines are getting for these ridiculous fees. Charge the sales tax on them too.

  • Anonymous

    As one who has on several occasions decried the endless whining about fees, I have some credibility in saying that this one, yes, is altogether wrong. There is no added value involved, no cost to the airline, just a tricky way to advertise a false fare to the public. I actually thought they had a point about the DoT regulations earlier this year. This time I hope they get nailed.

  • Anonymous

    Is there anything that Spirit doesn’t chrage for?

  • Anonymous

    They are following the lead of RyanAir in Europe. Didn’t they also put coin boxes on the lavatories? Charging 1 British Pound to use it?

  • Anonymous

    So just how are fees good for consumers, again? I didn’t catch that.

  • dcta

    Hmmm…doesn’t it cost Spirit less to issue tickets on-line than to pay a human at the airport? Isn’t this kind of backwards?

  • Randy

    Love spirit.flew from Minneapolis to vegas direct for $120 rd trip.how can that be beat.

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