Spirit Airlines reported that it will take some time to recover from the hundreds of flight cancellations in July and August of 2021. Photo credit: Jakayla Toney

I traveled on Spirit Airlines during its fiasco. Never again.

A short travelogue about a 24 hour journey during one of the worst times to take Spirit Airlines.

A collective moan came from my sister and her husband when I told them I bought a round-trip ticket from Philadelphia to Los Angeles on Spirit Airlines.

“I don’t give two fucks if the tickets are $1 dollar, I will never, ever, ever fly on that ratchetness again,” she declared.

Then they began to list all of the details of their travel nightmare several years prior. It was the cheapest ticket to fly their family of five to attend our grandmother’s funeral. Not only did they end up paying more than they budgeted, but my brother-in-law had neck and back pains for some time afterwards. My nieces were traumatized and my sister expressed the utmost rage. Now, every time you mention Spirit Airlines she gets possessed and goes all the way in on the low budget carrier.

“I’d fly on Soul Plane before Spirit,” joked Amara as she drew up the fictitious airline company on the spoof comedic film, Soul Plane, which told the tale of a hellish debut flight.

When I made my case as to why my husband and I took a risk on Spirit, she warned, “You get what you pay for.” Actually, I did not. I paid a premium price for a 24-hour journey of confusion, poor customer service and profit-over-everything.

Nickel-and-Dimin’

I thought my purchase to catch a Spirit flight was the best option. Earlier reports said the Florida-based, low-cost carrier was working on upgrading its customer experience by easing it’s “ultra low-cost fares with high [backend] fees,” a profit-driven strategy. Or in other words, hustling customers for every penny. Plus, my bargain airfare hunt for two occurred during the price surge for summer travel in late spring.

Economy tickets on average were $450 to $500, so the $367 airfare on Spirit seemed reasonable. But, I was wrong. Dead ass wrong.

Shortly after I nabbed a flight, Spirit Airlines began to message me about seat selections and baggage. To pick your seat, the starting fee was $63. Hunh? Oh, it gets better. A carry-on was $51 and checked baggage was $46 with a 40 pound limit. In my steepest indignation, I ignored the adverts because prices for the same itinerary dropped by 50 percent or more after news of the COVID-19 Delta variant was spreading through Los Angeles county. So concerned were government and health officials, they reinstated the mask mandate.

Once checked in on my day of the flight, I discovered that the prices for both went up. Carry-ons were $60 and checked baggage ended up being $51. Begrudgingly, I had to check in a bag. My ticket went from $367 to $418, just like that. On the return, I paid $46 online, raising the price to $464. Already, I bought the $7 service where you could jump in the front of the line and the $9 upgrade to avoid a long security check. But, the ticket agent returned my money after telling me those offerings were not even available. Yet and still, I was at a $51 loss.

To mitigate my annoyance, the ticket agent was cool. We chit-chatted about travel and the last 18 months of pandemic craziness. Little did I know, she put me in a great seat to Atlanta: 1D.

One of the few times I was not in the back of an airbus, I was fully stretched out and slept like a log in my plush 1D seat. “The peasants were behind me,” I chuckled to myself when I boarded the plane. But Karma just stood to my right in a corner, “tsk tsk tsking” my naughty thoughts. She would later usher in a consequence.

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After a five-hour layover, I walked to the gate in Atlanta ready for the final leg of a long travel day. A ticket agent asked if anyone wanted to sit at the emergency exits. I jumped at the chance because that meant more leg room.

There, the airline representative was as pleasant as Georgia’s famous sweet tea. He called me “dear” and “sugar” in his soft, polite courtesies. Having lived in the South for years, with three of them in Atlanta, I knew it was the southern way to express both respect and endearment. My reply was, “Yass bitch,” when he hair-flipped at my compliment of his professionalism and cheery demeanor.

My seating was 12D on that flight. Groggily, I sat down and listened to the flight attendant’s special instructions for those of us in the emergency section. For 12 years, I held an EMT certification from LA County, so if a crisis did happen I would earnestly do my best. One minute following our agreement to sit in the emergency section, I passed out. As the flight descended into Los Angeles,  I awoke to an odd scene. It was something I saw prior to going to sleep—the same slender man seated in an uncomfortable-looking cross-legged yoga position. 

“Did he ride the whole way to L.A. sitting like that?” I asked myself with a high level of curiosity and respect. Probably not. Since the ride was a little over five hours, he would have transcended by then. But, I did take note that the man was statuesque when he stood, which made sense as to why he sat that way. Spirit Airlines’ notorious sardine-in-a-can seating did not accommodate his height.

I made a personal note to pay for more leg room, a $63 bill, coming back on the longest part of my trip. That took my ticket to $527. I thought that at the very least, I could be comfortable. But, I was wrong. Dead ass wrong.

Duane’s nightmare

My touchdown to LaLa land was one hour early. Grateful, I hopped off the plane and into the sunny day. To take off the edge, I went to a nice Mexican dive for some tacos and a draft beer. “Spirit is not that bad,” I thought while sipping the last suds of an 805 pale ale cerveza

When I reported to my sister that all was well, she rolled her eyes and said, “Holler at me after the return trip.” Damn, she was right.

My arrival to Los Angeles was just a few days before the Spirit Airlines debacle. When I started to hear the reports about Spirit cancelling flights, I warned my husband who was scheduled to fly out a week later.

On the day of his trip, he called me sounding super-irritated. The first leg of his flight had been delayed multiple times, and agents in Philadelphia were unsure if he would make the connecting flight in Fort Lauderdale.

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“It’s pandemonium in here,” he messaged me. The growing crowd of grounded travelers turned into a restless mass demanding answers and running from gate-to-counter then back to gate again in their failed attempts to jump on a plane.

The agents were flustered. The customers were pissed, and no one had a direct answer. Duane is not a fussy traveler. He is really easy in a lot of ways, plus he is a penny pincher. For a steal of a deal, he would catch a cargo plane. However, he had to make it to Los Angeles to help me and my family prepare for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

Begrudgingly, he got a refund then hopped on an Alaska Airlines flight. Because he was flying back on American Airlines, he only needed to adjust one-half of his voyage. When I picked him up from LAX, he floated into the car. Yet, he dodged a huge travel bullet.

My cousin and friend were stuck with American Airlines’ travel woes on their trips to Las Vegas. So much so, one of them went to the airport with a freshly twisted hairdo, but came out 17 hours later looking like she went through the roughest part of Fright Night at Knoxberry Farms.

So much for customer service…

As I went through my parents’ event- if you’re from a big family, you know that it was chaotic — I debated if I should change my flight. The Spirit horror stories were rolling out still, but I was too exhausted and far too busy to really think through my plans. My head said “yes” at my superficial meanderings, but my gut and my pockets echoed a resounding “no.”

It would be an extra $200 on a ticket that already cost too much. So I went with my pockets. Perhaps I had bad gas that day in my deliberations because a few days after grappling with travel plans, my flight had been delayed in Los Angeles. That was just the beginning.

My husband went with me to check in because his flight was scheduled several hours after mine. As I paid for my upgraded seat, remembering the $63, he asked a nearby agent a simple inquiry,  “Can I ask you a question?” She turned to him and said plainly, “No.” Then turned back.

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The exchange happened in the middle of the ticket agent helping me. She told me that because my plane was delayed, I would miss the connecting flight in Fort Lauderdale. So she put me on another flight that resulted in a 12 hour layover. Ay dios mio!

I asked her for alternatives. She said that was all they had, but I could request an earlier flight at the ticket counter once I got to Florida.

Disappointed but understanding, I had a bigger fish to fry: where was that rude agent? My husband had not received his refund and all he wanted was someone to see if it was issued on Spirit’s end. He nagged a male agent who was indeed helpful, but I was on the hunt for that she-devil in a white shirt and unflattering dark pants.

As I eyed the discourtesy standing behind the Spirit counter, she refused to turn around. She refused to acknowledge me. She almost refused to move because she knew that a slight turn would lock eyes with me. My glare burned through the back of her head, past her split ends and limp, long hair. She stayed that way until we left.

The cooler one most times, my husband assured me that all was good. So I went to the gate awaiting my redeye flight to Florida, which got delayed about another hour due to weather. My initial 7:45 evening flight left LAX a little after 11 pm. Exhausted, I passed out.

The price of budget fare on Spirit is no room-seating. If you are tall, you have to be able to sit in death-defying posiitons. On my flight, we were so snug that we were family at the end. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

A bumpy ride

Unlike the easy descent coming into Los Angeles, I was rudely awakened to my stomach dropping with the plane. The jarring feeling of being slapped in the face by turbulence and the loud cries of fellow passengers gave me a headache. The pilot mumbled something as the plane bungee-jumped in the air. Good gotdamn.

To worsen matters, two flight attendants dashed down the aisle to their seats with braids flapping in the wind. All I could think about was if I had enough life insurance and how I should have listened to my sister.

Oh, it gets worse. Someone threw up. The stench began to permeate in the closed quarters. However, it was counteracted with a disgustingly sweet musky air deodorizer.  I too began to gag as I clenched the armrests until my hands spasmed.

We arrived about ten minutes later. The passengers were whooping and hollering. Someone even praised Jesus. I think I went over every deity in the religious pantheon until I left the plane.

A little shaken and sleepy, it was about 6:30 in the morning. My original flight was boarding. Hoping I had a chance, I walked fast to the gate, but the doors had closed just before I arrived. Looking at other dejected souls in the area, I had company. We were told to find a nearby agent to change our seats.

With a bladder full of anxiety and overnight liquids, I went to the bathroom. The maintenance crew were finishing up their cleaning. Leaving the facilities spotless, I caught their conversation in Haitian Kreyol. Their African-French-Native mixed language made me think of my time at Florida A&M University. Some days, it felt like I was in the Caribbean. Jamaican Patois here, Kreyol there, a strong British Bermudian accent over yonder. But enough of the nostalgia, I had to go home.

That damn Anna

Once I relieved myself, then washed up, then had a cup of strong Cuban cafecito and croissant, I went to a ticket agent in hopes to change my flight. She told me that there were no seats for an earlier flight. Still, I had to keep my 6 pm itinerary.

Disappointed, I set up my laptop and worked for a few hours. Fort Lauderdale’s airport is immaculate albeit sterile. The food options are extremely limited with commercial Caribbean foodstuffs. Now hungry and anxious, the least I could do was see if I could get a seat upgrade.

When I eyed my gate, Gate 4, there was boarding activity going for the flight to Durham. While one agent scanned entry passes, another named Anna stood watching. “Excuse me, excuse, I need some help,” I told her.

She turned and said plainly, “We’re boarding, you’re going to have to wait.” Then she went back to doing her nothingness.

Slight fumes began to flood. Nevertheless, as a Black woman who had witnessed too many other Black women being deemed hostile get unfairly treated on airlines, I sat down. I’d just ask someone else. But that damn Anna kept post at Gate 4. About an hour later, I went back to the gate for my query.

It’s the lack of accommodations for me

While in line, a woman who had arrived from Ecuador with her family said that she missed the same Philadelphia flight I was supposed to be on. Then she dropped a bomb: Most of the passengers were put on two earlier flights.. She could not jump on either  as she was traveling with four kids and a husband.

At this time, I did not need to hear that. Now, I was disgusted. At the very least, I could get an upgrade. But remember Karma, who “tsked” me as I laughed at the people crammed in seating at the beginning of my travels. Well, she stood on the left looking at the scene unfold.

Nonchalantly, I approached Anna again. After I explained that I had been there for almost 12 hours due to my first flight’s delay, I asked for an upgraded seat. Anna said, “Oh yes, for $63 we have several seats.” Of course she knew I was asking for a complimentary upgrade. With as much composure I could have after being in the same panties for almost a day, I asked for a perk.

She calmly replied, “No.” Having asked why, she said I had to pay. I told her that I paid for an upgrade on the last flight that was late and put me here. I asked again if she could just check to see if that could happen without cost.

She refused and called the next person: the woman who needed her seats rearranged to oblige her family. In two seconds flat, Anna accommodated their request.

Once more, fumes began to simmer in my head.

“Excuse me, how did you change her seats but could not consider mine?” I asked Anna.
“Because she had kids,” Anna explained.
“You decided not to charge her, but you were charging me? That’s subjective.”
“No it’s not,” retorted Anna. “Its a family. They needed to sit next to each other.”

Then the woman who was accommodated walked over to me and said, “It’s going to be okay,” she said to me in a soothing guilt. Thinking she was mitigating the conversation. “Sometimes you’ve got to be smart.”

“Move and kick rocks you cockroach,” I groveled. She blanched and scurried. I checked myself. What was going on with me?

At that moment, I really believed that Spirit Airlines conjures up demon time in its passengers. Similar to the pandemonium my husband witnessed in Philadelphia, my frustration had peaked to anger. To control myself, I whispered affirmations like I was at an Iyanla Vanzant retreat fixing my life. I swallowed, then walked my smelly and defeated self to a bench until we boarded. Of course, about an hour later than our expected departure.

At long last… 

On the plane, I too experienced the sardine-in-a-can seating. Still with a little fight in me, I explained my situation to a flight attendant. She told me that she would reseat me if there was an opening. With some hope, I went to my designated place.

Already, two of the three chairs were occupied by a couple. The girl concentrated on her phone’s screen, while the guy’s eyes were closed in what looked like pain. He was so tall that he had to open his legs to fit. It was like a stripper’s Chinese split. I thought back to the slender guy’s yoga posture. Karma was definitely laughing now.

When I gently eased into the tight quarters, the young man next to me jumped and apologized. Awkwardly, he stuffed his knees up and on the backside of the chair in front of him. It looked like torture. “Please, give yourself some room. I’ll be fine.”

He refused, citing that it would leak into my space. “We have no space on Spirit,” I joked when I told him that we’re so close we need to just call ourselves family. Giving in, my fellow suffering passenger expanded his legs. I crossed mine, almost falling out of my aisle chair.

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The airline stewardess never came back, though there were empty seats in several rows. Plus, in my ear hustle, I learned that most of us on the delayed flight were packed in the back. Feeling two levels above exasperated and pissed off, I went to the nearest open seat and again, passed out. 

Sometime during the flight, the attendant who ghosted my request woke me up to ask if I wanted something to drink. Before I said something slick, I realized that she was one of the dashers in the flight to Fort Lauderdale. I chuckled. She was a victim of circumstance, too. “No,” I responded as I rolled then closed my eyes

When my husband picked me up, I limped to the car . He looked sympathetic, but refreshed, clean and well-fed. His American flight was peaceful. Promptly, I called my mother to let her know that after 24 hours, I’d made it. Then I called my sister.

“Told you,” she said after retelling her trip. I was too tired to add to the conversation.

Finishing my calls and texts, hubby gave me a bottle of water before driving home. I could not even talk. I needed quiet. By the time I made it to a hot shower, it had been a 24 hour ordeal. That is 24 hours wearing a mask and travel worn clothes.

Two days later, Spirit sent an email giving me 1,000 points to fly with them again. “I don’t give two fucks if the tickets are $1 dollar, I will never, ever, ever fly on that ratchetness again,” I declared.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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