TIME Airlines

As Hated Airline Fees Spread, the Original Fee-Crazed Carrier Changes Course

Frontier Airlines is following the low-fare, fee-heavy “charge for everything” lead set by Spirit Airlines. Is it inevitable more airlines will do the same?

On Monday, Denver-based Frontier Airlines announced that it would start charging for carry-on bags, with a new fee structure calling for $20 to $50 per bag that passengers who’d like to enjoy the privilege of using the overhead bin. The new fee is part of a broader push to follow the ultra low-fare (and ultra profitable) model established by Spirit Airlines, which also charges for carry-on bags, among many, many other things.

“We are basically reducing the fare and then will charge for everything else the customer may want a la carte,” said Frontier CEO David Siegel, via the Denver Post. “We say Spirit is the dollar store and they aspire to be Walmart. We say we are Target, offering really good value for your money.”

It’s not just Frontier that likens Spirit Airlines to a dollar store. Spirit itself has embraced the “dollar store of the sky” as a nickname.

Another nickname adopted by Spirit has been the “Ryanair of the U.S.” Spirit executives have admitted they “flat-out copied” the fees and policies employed over the years by Ryanair, the largest low-fare carrier in Europe.

If there’s anything Ryanair is known for more than low fares, however, it’s the ruthless nickel-and-diming of its customers, combined with abrasive, headline-grabbing sound bites regularly offered to the media by CEO Michael O’Leary. This is a man who has threatened to install pay toilets on planes, and who called passengers “idiots” if they don’t take steps in advance to avoid Ryanair’s most egregious fees.

What’s scary to travelers who loathe the nasty, nickel-and-dime model is that this approach is clearly spreading. Ryanair was copied by Spirit, which in turn has been copied by carriers such as Allegiant Air (which added carry-on fees in 2012) and, now, Frontier Airlines. Meanwhile, it’s become standard across the industry to charge for basic “services” like ensuring you’ll be able to sit next to your child or spouse on the plane.

Is it inevitable that all airlines will continue down this path, so that we’ll all one day be flying on some “charge for everything” Spirit-Ryanair imitator? Maybe not.

In fact, even as more airlines seem to be using Ryanair as a model, Ryanair itself is desperately trying to combat its reputation for rip-offs and poor service. Ryanair’s O’Leary explained to the BBC in early April that it has been instituting a wide range of service improvements, including a supposedly quicker, easier-to-navigate website and more customer-friendly seat reservations and baggage policies and fees. The airline also recently started advertising on TV for the first time, with a series of commercials aimed at changing its image.

Surely, part of the motivation for Ryanair’s moves has been pushback from passengers. In a recent traveler survey, Ryanair didn’t even make it into the top five budget airlines serving the UK. Previously, Ryanair has been named by consumers as the worst brand in Europe across all industries, and participants in the survey described the airline’s service as “aggressive and hostile towards customers.”

Like its forefather, Spirit Airlines is also routinely bashed by consumers. Last fall, a Consumer Reports study on U.S. airlines ranked Spirit dead last, and noted that Spirit doesn’t stand out merely as a bad airline. “Spirit Airlines received one of the lowest overall scores for any company we’ve ever rated,” the report stated.

More recently, Spirit was named the “most complained about airline” in the world, displacing Ryanair as the year-in, year-out titleholder. The results of a poll at Airfare Watchdog also just indicated that Spirit has by far the rudest airline attendants in the U.S.

And this is the airline that many in the field are trying to imitate?

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