Akron-Canton Airport’s newest airline arriving in November is new to the region, but the region and airport aren’t new to the head of Spirit Airlines.
Spirit Airlines Chief Executive Officer Bob Fornaro is the former AirTran Airways CEO. He was also AirTran president and chief operating officer in May 2006 when the then-booming AirTran chose Akron as the first location to bring its annual meeting outside its then headquarters in Orlando, Fla., or its Atlanta hub because of the airline’s success in the Akron area.
When he became CEO of ultralow cost carrier Spirit Airlines in January, he said he wanted to try things differently, said Spirit spokesman Paul Berry. Instead of just choosing big cities to start new service, Spirit is changing it up, Berry said.
This year, it announced new service in Seattle, followed by Akron-Canton and then Newark, N.J. and Havana, Cuba. But the Akron-Canton announcement caught the industry off guard, said Berry, who was at the airport this week.
“Bob was very positive about his experience with Akron-Canton and the people here,” said Berry. The reduction in Southwest flights earlier this year — pulling all of its flights except three daily to Atlanta — did not have anything to do with Spirit’s decision to enter the Akron market. (The airline also serves Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and says it sees the two markets as distinct).
The airline saw “an Akron market that would enjoy daily flights and ultralow fares,” said Berry.
Akron-Canton Airport President and CEO Rick McQueen, who has been with the airport for nearly 34 years, said he plans to thank Fornaro when he makes it down to Spirit’s headquarters in Florida.
Filling Allegiant void?
Last week, Akron-Canton’s newest airline, Allegiant Air, said it would pull its six destinations and move them up to Cleveland next April.
Berry said with an industry that makes changes frequently, Spirit officials weren’t surprised, but see an opportunity.
While Allegiant flies to its destinations a few times per week from Akron-Canton, Spirit will fly daily, said McQueen. Despite the departures of Allegiant and Southwest, the airport is on track to see a year-over-year increase in seats by April, the first anniversary of Southwest reducing its flights, he said.
On Nov. 10, Spirit will begin daily service to Orlando International Airport and Fort Lauderdale. Around the same time, the airline also will add seasonal service several times a week to Tampa and Fort Myers. On April 27, it will begin daily service to Myrtle Beach (seasonally) and year-round service to Las Vegas. At that time, Tampa and Fort Myers will end for the season.
With Spirit’s arrival, the only destination the airport will truly be losing with Allegiant’s departure is Savannah/Hilton Head, McQueen said, but he hopes Spirit or other airlines will pick it up.
“Anything is possible,” said Berry.
The fact that the airline added the Las Vegas route last week — after the initial route announcement and before Spirit’s arrival at the airport — is a good sign, said McQueen.
“People want to go to Vegas, and it’ll introduce more people to the Akron-Canton Airport,” he said.
McQueen said an advantage of Spirit over Allegiant, which is also considered an ultralow carrier because they are considered “no frills” airlines, is that Spirit passengers can fly on to many destinations from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
Spirit doesn’t utilize a hub system, but calls Orlando and Fort Lauderdale two of its “top stations,” where passengers can continue on to most of the airline’s Caribbean, Mexico and South America destinations.
The ultralow carrier model is not completely new to Akron travelers. Similar to Allegiant, Spirit’s low ticket prices — some starting at less than $50 one way — only include a seat and one personal item that can be stowed underneath a seat. Other things, such as a carry-on bag, checked bag and seat assignments are extra. They are on a graduated price scale, with the cheapest prices at the time of booking on www.spirit.com. Spirit’s yellow airplanes, the youngest fleet in the U.S., also pack in about 20 more passengers than other airlines and seats don’t recline, Berry said. There is no first class or business class, but the airline has its “big front seat” area, which is similar, he said.
“We give consumers the choice of what amenities they want in an airline as opposed to being forced,” said Berry.
Unlike Southwest or Allegiant, Spirit customers can buy tickets through third-party travel sites, but customers may not get the cheapest bag options via those aggregators, said Berry.
The cheapest flights and add-ons will be on Spirit’s website, he said.
Berry also addressed Spirit’s troubled history of customer service.
“Three years ago, we were bad on customer satisfaction,” he said. Part of that is attributed to customers not being familiar with the airline’s pricing structure, but the airline also has made changes, and “customer satisfaction has improved tremendously in the last two years and six months.” Now, the complaints tend to be from customers who book via the third-party sites since there is not the same add-on pricing structure.
McQueen said Spirit is deliberate in walking customers through its optional add-on costs.
“You’re made very aware when you buy your ticket what you get and what you don’t get,” McQueen said.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or email@example.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter.