Spirit CEO issues refund, apology to dying veteran
By Hannah Sampson
After nearly two weeks of bad publicity — and threats of a boycott — Miramar-based Spirit Airlines has said a dying Vietnam veteran will get a refund for the ticket he is too sick to use.
In a statement released late Friday afternoon, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza acknowledged that the company famous for its rigid (and profitable) policies on fees had erred in refusing to refund the $197 ticket.
“Every day we seek to balance customer service with customers’ demands for the lowest airfare possible,” the statement said. “But sometimes we make mistakes.”
Acknowledging that he failed to show respect or compassion for Jerry Meekins, who has esophageal cancer, Baldanza said he would personally refund the airfare and that Spirit would donate $5,000 in Meekins’ name to Wounded Warriors, the veteran’s chosen charity.
“We have worked hard to build a great company that makes air travel affordable while making our employees proud and customers satisfied,” Baldanza said in the statement. “All of us at Spirit Airlines extend our prayers and best wishes to Mr. Meekins.”
The change of heart came after Baldanza made several public statements, including on a recent earnings call, that offering refunds to someone who didn’t buy insurance on their ticket “cheapens that product a bit” and cheats those who did insure their purchases.
Friday’s decision also arrived as threats to boycott the company mounted on a Facebook page and from veterans groups, Fox News reported.
News of Meekins’ plight emerged in late April, after the 76-year-old bought a ticket to Atlantic City to care for his daughter following surgery. After buying the ticket, he said, doctors told him his immune system was too compromised to fly and that he didn’t have much longer to live.
The Clearwater man’s protests outside Tampa International Airport drew media attention — and widespread public support.
For Spirit, the headlines just got worse. This week, while the outcry from Meekins’ case continued, the airline announced that it was raising fees for carry-on bags stored in overhead bins — which it was first to introduce — to $100 when paid at the gate.
Also this week, the low-cost carrier reported it made more than $23 million in profits for the first quarter of 2012, an increase from the previous year’s first quarter. Operating revenue increased more than 29 percent year-over-year to $301.5 million, and non-ticket revenue jumped 21 percent to $51.68 per passenger flight segment.
The airline says it is able to keep the cost of base fares low by charging for extras, including choosing a seat, having an agent print boarding passes at the airport or storing carry-on bags in overhead compartments.
Airline observers say the policies are effective in keeping prices low but also in earning contempt from some travelers.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, said he was shocked by Spirit’s decision Friday.
“They usually hold their ground,” he said. “They’re so tone-deaf.”
Still, he said, other airlines also have strict no-refund policies.
Said Hobica: “It’s pretty epic that Spirit actually backtracked, and in such a public way.”
The Tampa Bay Times contributed to this report.