Can Disney Fix Spirit Airlines?

Spirit has long been the ugly face of the airline industry, the airline everyone loved to hate. Its reputation for poor service, uncomfortable seats, and out-of-control fees has set the low bar for airline performance for years. And it continues to do so.

In the DOT’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, Spirit was by far the most-complained-about U.S. carrier in September, racking up 6.65 complaints per 100,000 enplanements.

It’s not as though the airline’s managers were unaware of the problem. When Robert Fornaro replaced Ben Baldanza as Spirit’s chief over a year ago, he pointedly included customer service among the areas targeted for improvement:

I plan to improve upon the already very strong base of fundamentals that Spirit possesses with a focus on continuing to improve operational reliability and customer service, and maintaining our financial discipline to drive value for all of Spirit’s stakeholders.

Indeed, Spirit has done well for its financial stakeholders, generating profits that are the envy of many other airlines. But as the DOT survey shows, the complaint needle hasn’t budged. Presumably with that in mind, Spirit is looking elsewhere for customer-service inspiration and training.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Spirit has contracted for customer-service training with the Disney Institute, the “professional development and external training arm of The Walt Disney Company.” No details of the engagement were confirmed by either party, but the Disney Institute’s website lists such courses as Employee Engagement and Quality Service among its featured offerings.

That might be a step in the right direction. But the kind of service failings that affect Spirit can’t just be dumped on frontline agents; it’s a company-wide issue, top to bottom. Which suggests that the airline would do well to sign up for another of the Disney Institute’s courses: Leadership Excellence.

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.

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