If Spirit Airlines is so unpopular, why are its flights so full?

If you're looking to travel on the cheap, Richard Schlesinger of "48 Hours" has an airline he'd like to tell you about:

There is something about Spirit Airlines that doesn't add up. Passengers routinely blast the airline; Consumer Reports gave it one of the lowest overall scores for any company it's ever rated.

But it has one of the highest profit margins of any airline in the country.

Spirit takes no-frills to new heights with some of the lowest base fares. But passengers complain it's late, it's cramped, and they are charged for things most airlines include in the ticket price.

We found Lyn Roth Jacobs on her second flight largely because she had already bought three nonrefundable tickets. So would she fly them again? "Not next year," she said. How about the year after? "No," she replied.

So if so many people dislike Spirit Airlines ... why is it so hard to get a ticket?

"What people say and what people do are different things," said Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza. "And people like to save money. And some of those people complain about what it takes to save that kind of money."

Flying Spirit does take a little getting used to. The seats are a lot closer together than any other airline. And you know the expression, "You get what you pay for?" Well, on Spirit Airlines you pay for everything.

Everything.

Spirit was the first to charge for all checked bags, but now it also charges for overhead space ($35 IF you pay in advance). And you'd better pay in advance because if you wait, it'll really cost you: $50 if you do it at the airport, and if you wait until you go to the gate, it's $100.

And Spirit makes more money on some of the overheads with advertising.

Passengers on most domestic flights know there's no free lunch anymore, but on Spirit there's not even any free water. It costs $3.

Angie Patterson has adapted: "They used to give you that. Now you pay."

But she doesn't blame Spirit: "Not at all. They're trying to cover their costs."

Baldanza insists the extra charges are not mandatory, and he bristles if you call the charges "fees."

"You don't like the F-word, 'fee,'" said Schlesinger. "What do you prefer?"

"Well, we think of it as options that customers choose."

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Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza with correspondent Richard Schlesinger.
CBS News

Although there is one thing passengers still get for free.

"We've rejected, for example, charging for bathrooms," Baldanza said. "We're never going to do that. That's not an optional thing."

Never? Raise your right hand ...

"As long as I'm CEO," Baldanza said with a laugh, "we will not charge to use the bathroom."

It's pretty much his only concession. Comfort is hard to provide with cut-rate fares in this cut-throat business. Baldanza has to sell more seats. So Spirit planes have about 30 more seats in the same amount of space.

Schlesinger asked Baldanza, "Now, tell me the truth: honest, are you comfortable in this seat?"

"Absolutely," he replied. "I mean, I've got room. Admittedly, I'm short."

Baldanza wants passengers to know what they are buying. So he has proclaimed this the Year of the Customer.

"The Year of the Customer is about aligning the customer expectation to the reality of what they're going to get," he said. "And that reality is a compromise in some cases of seat comfort and other things, but it's an enormous win in terms of lower price, which is what drives most people."

So, is Spirit lowering expectations?

"No," Baldanza said. "We're aligning expectations."

The reality is, while people may grumble about the extra fees (sorry about the word, Mr. Baldanza), or the sardine-style seating, they ARE buying almost every available ticket on a growing number of flights ... and that's what makes Baldanza's spirit soar.


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