Spirit Airlines is Imposing New Restrictions — to Better Compete With American Airlines

Spirit Airlines allows you to carry a personal item onboard their aircraft. If you want to bring on a full-sized carry on you have to pay.

United’s new basic economy fares won’t allow you to bring a full-sized carry on onboard at all.

A couple of weeks ago American revealed that they’re going to follow United’s lead and forbid passengers buying basic economy fares from bringing a full-sized carry on onboard as well.

That makes American and United less flexible than Spirit.

Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

And American took it a step further with published rules for the personal item: you’ll only be able to bring an item onboard if it’s 18″ x 14″ x 8″ or smaller, and “plan[s] to update the bag sizers to make allowable carry-on sizes clear.”

No doubt “for competitive reasons” Spirit has determined that it’s going to have to reduce its own generosity, down to the depths of American Airlines. Via Emily McNutt, Spirit is reducing the size of an allowable carry-on effective April 4 to exactly the size that American Airlines will allow.

I never thought I’d see in my lifetime Spirit Airlines diminishing the passenger experience so that they aren’t more generous than American.

For some elements of the inflight experience American Airlines will be better than Spirit even on Basic Economy fares, however in other elements of passenger experience Spirit will be the better choice. For instance,

  • American Airlines offers 1 to 2 inches of additional legroom in economy compared to Spirit.

  • American’s full-sized carry on limit — when you’re allowed to bring one — is 22″ x 14″ x 9″. But you cannot even pay to bring one on when traveling on a Basic Economy fare. Spirit’s carry-on limit, when you pay for one, is 22″ x 18″ x 10″ so more generous.

  • Spirit will offer seat assignments in advance for a fee. American Airlines will only offer seat assignments 48 hours in advance for a fee on Basic Economy fares.

  • American will still print boarding passes at the airport for free, and will serve you inflight drinks for free. Spirit charges for both.

Here’s how Spirit’s “Bare Fares” work:

Now that Spirit has joined PreCheck if you’re going to buy the cheapest fares you’ll need to decide which option is better for you. (or Southwest.)

To borrow a phrase that’s largely entered the lexicon over the past 18 months, “Sad!”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I never thought I’d see in my lifetime Spirit Airlines diminishing the passenger experience so that they aren’t more generous than American.

    The airlines are giving today’s fliers a message: “You didn’t die soon enough.”

  2. If I was Spirit, I would keep the current size and advertise the heck out if it that they allow a bigger bag for free. I would promote the hell out of that fact right around the time AA/UA release their basic economy fares. They can always reduce their size to match the competition a few months after….I just think they missed a chance to stick it to the big boys

  3. Spirit proposed 18″x14″x8″ last summer for travel beginning in April 2017, and so it appears American copied Spirit, not the other way around.

    Also, how are United and American less flexible? They both will allow a carry on, you just have to buy the next higher fare class instead of paying a fee like Spirit. To be seen if that fare difference is more or less than Spirit’s bag fee.

  4. You seem hellbent on spinning this as AA or United taking something away from passengers. This is a new lower fare, a new product. No one is forcing you to buy it. Continue with what you have had. Let the free market work!

    As for carry-ons, the airlines have been extremely lenient with regard to oversized bags. It is high time that they start enforcing the size restrictions on personal items and bin-stored bags.

  5. @Bitter Truth – it is not a lower fare than those which are already offered. American is explicit on this point. It’s fewer attributes for what’s already the lowest fare.

    As far as “let the free market work” I am not advocating government banning these fares. Whenever Senators like Schumer come out for bans of that sort I come out guns blazing. I do want consumers to understand their choices, however.

  6. I flew Spirit for the first time last week. I flew to Chicago from NY on Spirit, and back on American, a trip that really highlighted the strengths of each airline.

    BTW, it’s not true that Spirit charges to get a boarding pass at the airport. They charge to use an agent, but printing at a kiosk is free.

    First, American: I flew American home because Spirit cancelled my flight and they simply have too few flights between NY and Chicago. Rather than rebook, I cancelled and bought a one-way on AA on my way to the airport.

    Now Spirit: these guys are onto something.

    I’m not interested in spending $25 and suffering 28″ seat pitch. So I paid an additional $40 and got a Big Front Seat. Same as a domestic first class seat on American or United.

    On American, that seat would have cost an additional few hundred dollars. It would have come with a meal, free drinks, two checked bags, expedited security and priority boarding. Spirit included just the seat, which is exactly what I wanted. For $40. If I wanted food, that was available. For $7 they add expedited security. For a few more bucks, a full-sized carry-on or a bag.

    The plane was coming late and we were supposed to arrive in Chicago almost two hours late. The gate staff decided to aim for a 25 minute turnaround and cut that delay to around 30 minutes.

    They lined everyone up and ensured that our boarding pass were out. They were friendly and patient throughout. The inbound flight came in at 10:25 PM, delayed about an hour and a half. By 10:40, they had finished deplaning, including wheelchairs, and immediately started boarding us. At 10:53, we pushed back from the gate, and arrived in Chicago less than 40 minutes late.

    In the end, I got a domestic first class seat with expedited security for around $125. I could have chosen to take my chances with security, taken a regular seat with no seat selection, gone to the airport to buy my ticket (avoiding the “passenger service fee”) and gotten round-trip tickets to Chicago for around $40. American’s basic economy fare is still always more than Spirit’s “bare fare” (where you go to the airport to buy the ticket). They don’t offer the option of a first class seat for a few dollars. They don’t offer a full-sized carry-on at all.

    If you’re paying for a flight, literally the single advantage American has over Spirit is the size of the airline and route network.

  7. To add another data point, I have a paid booking with United from EWR to ATL in March in standard economy (not basic). United is offering me buy-up to “Economy Plus” starting each way at $66. For a few inches of legroom, no other benefits. Spirit, in contrast, offers buy-up to a proper first class seat, also with no additional benefits, for about half that cost for flights of similar distance.

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