For months now, “No Hidden Fees” has been the ubiquitous slogan of Southwest’s advertising campaign, in which it takes other U.S. carriers to task for all the fees they’ve been adding for items or services such as phone reservations, ticket changes, first or second checked bags and curbside check-in. Part of the airline’s argument, other than that it’s competitors will sock you with fees that substantially increase the total price of the ticket, is that many of the fees are “hidden” in that travelers really are not aware of them or how much cost they can add. This commercial with a literally two-faced ticket counter agent is one example of how Southwest has been trying to drive home that message.
How is it, then, that Spirit, which has led the way in fee additions and a la carte pricing, this month has started using the "no hidden fees" phrase as an argument to fly Spirit? The airline did it in press releases announcing its new Boston-Atlantic City service and Chicago-Myrtle Beach service, and even more conspicuously a week earlier when it made "no hidden fees" a theme of a “Cheap and Easy and Nothing to Hide” fare sale.
On its surface, this themes like the height of chutzpah (that's "nerve" to the nth degree, for those unfamiliar with the Yiddish term, although even that definition does not quite do the word justice). After all, Spirit was the first U.S. carrier to start charging customers for their first and second checked bags, charges for all beverages including bottled water, and even has considered charging customers an extra fee to have the airline transfer their checked baggage between connecting flights. (You can hear Spirit's CEO explain the airline's fee-filled philosophy in a podcast I posted back in June.)
Spirit, however, argues its use of the "no hidden fees" slogan is appropriate and justified. Here's why, as explained in that brief fare sale and in my interview with Chief Marketing Officer Barry Biffle last week.
Here’s just a snippet from the press release announcing the sale, which also contains a thinly veiled shot at Southwest.
“Don't be fooled. Some airlines spend millions trying to convince people they have no hidden fees when they hide bag fees, drink fees and more in their fares, and some don't even have the decency to offer a seat assignment. It’s a shame that some practice such perverted acts as forcing passengers to pay for bags they don’t want because it’s hidden in the fare. Spirit doesn’t hide fees in the fare. Spirit gives customers the lowest possible fare and offers reasonably priced options.”
And that is the gist of Spirit’s argument, and justification, for expropriating Southwest’s “No Hidden Fees” message. Spirit does charge a lot of fees, but, the airline argues, that’s not a negative thing because, unlike some other carriers charging more fees, it also offers extremely low base fares that can fall below $10 and even 10 cents one-way (the customer rarely pays that low a fare for both directions on an itinerary, but the total cost still can be extremely low absent the fees).
“When we unbundled, we actually lowered our fares,” Biffle said. “When you have fares as low as a penny, and you charge for a bag and a seat assignment, people get it.” In his view, that means its unfair to lump Spirit in with other carriers that he and others would characterize as “nickel and diming” their customers because they didn’t really lower their fares when they added their new fees.
Furthermore, Biffle declared, Spirit took additional steps this year to make sure those fees are evident to the customer in the booking process.
“Our fees aren’t hidden,” he said. “In fact, we think it’s offensive for people to hide a fee inside a fare. If you don’t check two bags and you don’t get a drink, than you actually overpaid. So whose fees are actually hidden?”