Cheap air­fare can come with travel has­sles

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Justin Bach­man

Any­one buy­ing a ticket on one of the su­per-low­cost, low-fare air­lines knows not to ex­pect any frills. But in re­cent months, fly­ing on big­bar­gain air­lines such as Spirit and Al­le­giant has of­ten meant de­layed or can­celed flights as they have strug­gled to run their op­er­a­tions re­li­ably.

Each has unique is­sues to ad­dress, from Spirit Air­lines Inc.’s la­bor meltdown with its pi­lots to a whole­sale ef­fort at Al­le­giant Travel Co. to sharpen its air­craft main­te­nance poli­cies and prac­tices. Al­le­giant also re­placed some em­ploy­ees at var­i­ous air­ports this past spring with “new faces and fresh blood,” said Scott Shel­don, the air­line’s in­terim chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer.

The low fares con­tinue to fill the planes, and all three of the U.S. ul­tralow-cost air­lines re­main prof­itable. But the has­sle fac­tor has been as real for fliers as jet-fuel bills are for the air­lines.

“We sin­cerely apol­o­gize to our cus­tomers who were af­fected by the flight dis­rup­tions dur­ing the quar­ter,” Bob Fornaro, Spirit’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive, said in a state­ment Thurs­day ac­com­pa­ny­ing the air­line’s lat­est re­sults. Al­le­giant Travel Co. pres­i­dent John Red­mond told an­a­lysts on Wed­nes­day, “When you look at our op­er­a­tions (in the sec­ond quar­ter), we did not meet our ex­pec­ta­tions at all, and surely not those of our cus­tomers.”

An ul­tra-low-cost car­rier (ULCC) will never, ever try to be as punc­tual as a big legacy air­line. Be­ing on time all or most of the time costs money. Delta Air Lines Inc., for ex­am­ple, has spent enor­mous sums of money in re­cent years to move to­ward the head of the in­dus­try pack in quash­ing de­lays. ULCCs can’t go all-out on that with­out risk­ing their busi­ness model. Most try to set­tle in the mid­dle — not so punc­tual that it boosts costs and not so de­layprone that they get a rep­u­ta­tion and in­cur longterm cus­tomer wrath.

At pri­vately held Fron­tier Air­lines Hold­ings Inc., “we don’t nec­es­sar­ily be­lieve that it’s cost­ef­fec­tive to end up in the top quar­tile for on-time per­for­mance,” Daniel Shurz, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent, said Fri­day.

Spirit’s 1,500 Air­bus pi­lots earn about 60 percent of their peers’ salaries at other air­lines, ac­cord­ing to their union, the Air Line Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion. The com­pany and pi­lots con­tinue to meet with fed­eral me­di­a­tors. The la­bor ran­cor be­gan to af­fect cus­tomers in April, when the air­line says pi­lots be­gan re­fus­ing to pick up open trips as part of their push for a new la­bor deal.

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