At the risk of beating a brain-dead airline management team to death, it is instructive to review last week’s Spirit Airlines FUBAR and see what lessons we can learn.

Before we wallow in Miramar, Florida carrier’s deep doo-doo in what should have been a great week as evidenced Tuesday by the company’s strong $23.8 million Q1 bottom line results, let’s acknowledge that the company finally kicking and screaming came to the right decision about Refundgate.

After a full-week of playing Scrooge by telling a 76-year-old cancer stricken ex-Marine to essentially pound sand over a $197 airfare refund request, Spirit Airlines CEO B. Ben Baldanza issued a mea culpa statement late Friday afternoon.


Friday’s bipolar 180-degree reversal of field came exactly one day after Baldanza told Fox News in a phoner that stiffed vet Jerry Meekins should have purchased trip insurance and therefore it would be unfair to those who bought this protection to make an exception for cancer-stricken veteran. In addition, the chief executive said that Spirit’s industry “leadership” in consumer complaints was “irrelevant.”

Twenty-four hours later, Baldanza admitted that “mistakes” were made and acknowledged the “medical condition” and “service to his country” by Meekins of Clearwater, Florida. Deep pockets Baldanza personally refunded the $197 to Meekins (even though the hosts of Fox & Friends had already beat him to the punch two days earlier on national television). In addition, he announced the company is donating $50,000 (genuine CSR?) to Meekins’ favorite charity, Wounded Warriors.

Is this sad public relations failure over? Not a chance.

Consider that Spirit Airlines issued the long-awaited statement at 4:31 pm EDT on a Friday afternoon, not right at the close of market but one-half hour later. The statement was clearly not timed for market close (the news release distribution services can specifically calibrate releases for 4:01 pm EDT), but instead just to get the statement out.

The problem is Fridays are the day of the week that Machiavellian PR pros typically use to bury bad news at the onset of a weekend. They particularly like to target Fridays before three-day holiday weekends (the Friday after Thanksgiving is particularly good) for bad-news burials.

Spirit Airlines’ late Friday afternoon (finally good) news release undoubtedly missed many leaving for the weekend, including conceivably thousands of Spirit employees. As a result, those boycotting the airline on Facebook just kept-on, keeping-on. The number of Facebook “likes” grew to 40,861 by Sunday morning and the related comments reached 33,199. In addition, there is a new Facebook site, “Spirit Ceo Ben Baldanza Must Resign,” complete with a doctored photo of Baldanza with Hitler’s mustache. There are 1,475 “likes” for this page.


Legendary basketball coach John Wooden advised his players to, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”  Spirit Airlines should have held the release until Monday immediately before the opening of US markets (a good news release day), guaranteeing better play. The release also should have included the announcement of the results of a Spirit Airlines refund policy review. Without it, customers, reporters, analysts, employees and other target publics will still ask if the refund change of heart only applies to Meekins. Will every other flyer still be stonewalled when it comes to asking for a refund, regardless of the circumstances? Did the airline learn anything when it comes to this easily avoidable PR train wreck?

There clearly needs to be a review process with a supervisor(s) given the common sense authority to issue a refund for extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Meekins cancer and doctor’s orders not to fly). The airline needs to drop its ridiculous policy of offering a “partial” refund if a ticket holder dies before or during a Spirit Airlines flight: “We are sorry that you died, so here is half-of-your fare back…We will keep the rest in your memory.”

This may also be a great time to buy some public relations goodwill by rescinding Thursday’s announced more than doubling of its swell fee to lift your own carry-on bag into the overhead bin from $45 to $100. Here’s a hint to the low-IQ management at low-fare Spirit Airlines: your low-fare competitor, Southwest Airlines, doesn’t charge for checked bags and likely will never charge their customers to hoist their own bags into the overhead bin.

Wonder if this crisis communications fire drill dies down by June 13 or whether it spills over to Spirit Airlines (Nasdaq: SAVE) annual meeting of shareholders that day at the swanky Ritz Carlton in toasty Phoenix, Arizona. The third item on the proxy is Baldanza’s $1,092,544 in annual compensation, including his 455,838 shares of SAVE.

Hey Ben, can you spare a dying vet a dime?