Illustrations: Jackson Gibbs

If Everyone Hates Spirit Airlines, How Is It Making So Much Money?

Inside the loathed company that defies every rule of branding—and logic

Rob Walker
Published in
13 min readJan 22, 2020

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LLast month, Spirit Airlines unveiled a new and improved cabin design. Naturally, a carrier touting its revamped passenger experience hopes for media attention — but maybe not from The Daily Show.

Alas, host Trevor Noah has made Spirit a recurring punchline, reveling in the ultra-low-cost carrier’s bargain-basement reputation. It’s so easy to make fun of Spirit (which Noah acknowledged is the show’s “favorite airline” for precisely this reason) that the segment about the cabin improvements barely even contained actual jokes. Mostly, Noah and his audience just laughed at the very notion of Spirit doing a better job at anything. “A full-sized tray table is a weird thing to brag about,” he said. “But on the bright side, now you have room for the meal they don’t give you!”

This is probably not fair to Spirit. But comedy isn’t fair — and neither is the way brand reputations get forged in the real world, where marketing campaigns and happy product announcements are not the only factors in play.

And it’s not just The Daily Show (or Saturday Night Live or Late Night or any of the other shows that have mocked Spirit). Even in the context of air travel, a category that bristles with consumer umbrage, Spirit has a shabby brand — perceived by many as a bare-bones option of last resort, like some kind of flying Waffle House. Thus when a first-time Spirit flyer tweeted before boarding the other day that she was “a little nervous” about what lay ahead, responses included: “Don’t do this to yourself,” “Imagine a Greyhound bus in 1999. Now imagine it is in the air,” and “Spirit blows … worst airline ever!” Several people offered prayers. As a Reddit user once explained in a thread about why the brand is so frequently mocked: “Who doesn’t fly Spirit and have a bad experience? Spirit is just a notoriously awful airline and super easy to make fun of.”

But here’s the real punchline: The airline also happens to be a success. “Spirit is consistently incredibly profitable,” says Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift Airline Weekly. “It’s a brilliant business,” agrees Samuel Engel, senior vice president of aviation at…

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