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.

This story was originally broadcast on March 23, 2014.

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.


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."

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."