People who don’t fly much want to know what it’s like to fly on budget airlines. Currently, the biggest budget airline in the states is Spirit, which operates largely how you’d expect: Everything costs extra. You pay to choose seats, pay to check a bag, pay to take a full-size carry-on, pay to have a glass of water, etc.
Some other ways that they pinch pennies include making you print your own boarding pass ($10 or something if they have to do it for you at the airport), baggage fees that are way extra if you don’t order them online beforehand, and they seemingly shrink the plane with itty bitty legroom, seats that don’t lean back, and more.
So let’s dig in.
The wife and I decided to save $150 per person by taking the red-eye from LAX to Cleveland on a Saturday night after a Friday wedding (which was a delight, for the record). The savings, we reasoned, would be worth the flight that we knew would be shitty. Our Sunday would be a waste of a day, as we’d be too exhausted to really accomplish much, but at least it saved us about $300.
The terminal that Spirit flies from in LAX can politely be called “unpleasant.” It’s crowded, there are minimal food options, and it’s not particularly clean. This is part of the budget airline process, though, and we were okay with that. Our departure time was 11:15 p.m. Pacific. At 11:10, we boarded a plane that was conservatively 80 degrees inside. By the time we made it to our seat, I was sweating. We paid extra for exit-row seats, meaning we’d get bonus legroom and – in theory – be more comfortable on this long, unpleasant flight. Instead, it seemed like it would just be more area to be hot in.
We sat at the gate for about 30 minutes after the cabin doors were secured and blew past our scheduled departure time. They told us to open the vents to allow the air to cool down but this proved to just move the hot air around a bit before cycling through the system and blowing back out hot again. Really great stuff.
The plane also sounded like it was going to explode. Most planes make a sort of cyclical whirring sound while taxiing – my guess is it’s something with either the landing gear or the wing flaps, based on location of the sound – for about 30 seconds. On this plane the sound went on for about eight minutes. The people behind us were making half-serious jokes about how certain they were that we would crash upon takeoff.
As we were taking off (shortly after midnight) Jenna pointed to a big roach-like bug climbing up the wall in front of us. It was probably trying to find a place to cool off.
See, the way they get you with “on-time” flights is that they build in about an hour more than it actually takes to fly between places. This was true of Ryanair as well – they would list the flight as departing at noon and arriving at 3:00, knowing that the time in the air is only 2:10. That means they can fart around all they want for 45 minutes and still be “early” for arrival. Most airlines do this, but the budget ones are the worst. In this case it just meant sitting on a hot airplane for a while longer.
One underrated way they keep the costs down is by reducing staff costs. While budget airlines have an international mandate for the amount of staff (one attendant per 50 passengers and two pilots), they can make those staffers cost less by getting crappy ones. There’s no reason to think they pay their staffers particularly well, which encourages them to be a bit more surly and unpleasant. The flip side would be that they hire flight attendants who are less qualified for the job because they’ll demand less money.
Our staff made it a rule to never go more than 45 minutes without an announcement at incredible volume. The main staffer was an effeminate Hispanic man who, while other airlines would announce Cleveland by saying things like “home of the NBA champion Cavaliers!” made jokes at Cleveland’s expense. Great way to win over a crowd of people going home. He would also speak louder into his PA phone than my grandmother talking to anyone on a cell phone. Additionally, this guy made sure to aggressively grab Jenna’s arm and wake her up, almost shouting at her for resting her head on the tray table of the row in front of us. This, I can assure you, is a sleeping tactic used virtually everywhere with no repercussions. This guy was just an asshole.
Toward the end of the flight, with the temperature still uncomfortably high (it never changed), the row in front of us noticed that the ceiling above them didn’t look right. As someone reached their hand up for the vent, they bumped the flat panel where the oxygen masks would drop in case of emergency. As a result, that piece of plastic more or less fell off. It didn’t drop far enough for the oxygen masks to fall, but only one of the four sides of the square of plastic actually remained attached. The passengers tried over and over again to get it to stick back where it was but had no luck.
The flight attendant came to the rescue.
He tried the same thing that they already tried, then said, “I don’t know what to tell you. Watch your head when you get up, I guess” and left. No “let me get some tape.” No “I’m sorry, that’s very annoying and probably violates some sort of safety regulations.” No “well this is embarrassing.” None of that. His best answer was “watch your head.”
Mercifully, the flight came in only about “ten minutes late” despite taking off nearly an hour behind schedule. Of course, Spirit had one last reminder about flying on a budget airline. Low cost means less workers, which means a longer time before your bags arrive. For us, after an overnight flight, this meant a solid twenty minutes of waiting at the baggage carousel after walking through the airport. It’s these moments that are the most agonizing. The finish line (bed) is only minutes away, and yet those precious minutes are extended by a string of events far beyond your control.
While we were waiting, I noticed the Spirit Airlines baggage service office. The girl working inside was probably 19 years old in a pink hoodie, occasionally putting her head down on the desk because it was 7:00 a.m. and she didn’t want to be there either.
So, in summary, what’s it like to fly a Spirit Airlines red-eye across the country?