The Brantley family of Fort Worth didn't get into the spirit of Spirit Airlines. It's easy to see why.Ashlee Brantley, the mom, says she will never forget her experience in seat 16C on a flight from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Mesa, Ariz.Before the flight, she argued with Spirit counter clerks when she learned she had to pay $18 more so her 5-year-old son wouldn't have to sit by himself. When she said she was scared of pedophiles, the fee was waived and the boy was allowed to sit with his father.Sitting alone in an aisle seat, she slept during the night flight. But when she felt movement, she awoke, she said, to see a man and woman beside her engaging in (warning: graphic content) oral sex.She got up and complained to a flight attendant. The attendant strolled by with a flashlight, but the offenders appeared to be sleeping. Brantley was allowed to change her seat.After the flight landed, the mother fetched her son's car seat from the luggage carousel. It was damaged. The family was told to get a claim form at the counter. But the line there was deep, and Brantley's husband, Chris, had to get ready for work. They left, thinking they could call later."I was disgusted, sickened and cried most of the way home," Ashlee Brantley recalled. Once home, she contacted the airline. "The phone rang and rang," she said. "We called again and someone picked up and answered with, 'Spirit, give me just a sec.' The hold time was 30 minutes. Then someone picked up the phone and a flatulence sound was made. The phone was hung up."OK, enough already. She wrote The Watchdog.Spirit Airlines is a trendsetter as an "ultralow-cost carrier." Its flights are cheap, but its add-on charges are the highest in American aviation.Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza happily compares his company to McDonald's. "Our strategy is to make money. For years in this industry, if you whined, we gave you something," he told The New York Times three years ago. "You yell, we waive a fee. That's created a general expectation that airlines will break their own policies. And we won't."In an e-mail that he accidentally sent to a larger audience, and which subsequently went viral, Baldanza wrote of a complaining customer, "We owe him nothing as far as I'm concerned. ... Let him tell the world how bad we are. He's never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny."Last year, Spirit Airlines began flying out of DFW Airport. But its customer service isn't Texas friendly. On the company's website listing of add-on charges, I counted 73 fees -- or as the company calls them, "our customer-empowering optional pricing structure." They account for a third of the company's income, too. A sampling: $5 to print a boarding pass at an airport kiosk; $30 for a carry-on bag; $25 if a bag is over 40 pounds (yes, 40, not 50), and $115 for a cancellation.Spirit's on-time ratings at DFW are the lowest among carriers: 67 percent for arrivals and only 58 percent for departures. Still, Spirit makes money. Last month, The Wall Street Journal called the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline "pound for pound, the most profitable airline in the U.S." Is this the future? Low fares. Minimal customer service. Leaders who believe they owe their passengers "nothing."Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson says the airline does its best to help customers understand what they are buying."We strive to make our website as user-friendly and as transparent as possible for our customers. We want them to know exactly what they are purchasing and what their options are before they make their final purchase." Shopping, I found a round-trip ticket from DFW to New York for $279. After adding a checked bag ($30) and assigned seats ($25 for each of the four legs of the trip), the fare jumped to $409. That didn't include water.The Brantleys are trying to make a claim for their damaged car seat. But Spirit requires an original receipt for any damaged item worth more than $50. Another hitch: A claim must be filed within several hours of a flight's arrival.To be nice, the airline gave the family three $50 vouchers for future flights. But they expire in 60 days. (Most airlines allow a year.)"In this case, we went above and beyond," the Spirit spokeswoman said. "We got them seats together and are working with them on the car seat. We do try to do everything we can to help our customers." Attendants handled the incident with her seatmates properly, too, she added.Should the federal government intervene and stop airlines from going fee crazy? A bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama this year creates the Aviation Consumer Protection Committee, which is slated to stay in business until 2015. The panel will evaluate aviation consumer-protection programs and make recommendations for improving them.The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043Twitter: @davelieber
Passengers can submit airline complaints to the U.S. Transportation Department Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm.