03/06/2012 08:34 am ET Updated May 06, 2012

Transparency Rules Irk Spirit Airlines By Exposing Hidden Fees

You'd never know it from their famously-cheeky (and sometimes offensive) fare sale campaigns (this one, from June, 2010 in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, was especially tactless), but Spirit Airlines is pretty grumpy these days.
Spirit is the airline that the flying public loves to hate. They love it because it frequently has the lowest fares on any given day, sometimes by hundreds of dollars. They hate it because of all the fees -- fees for checked bags, fees for carry-on bags, fees for using their website, and "just because we can" fees, such as their recently-introduced "unintended consequences" fee.

What's that? Unintended consequences? That's a $4 fee, added to all round-trip fares, that Spirit dreamt up in response to a new rule allowing consumers to book airfares and hold the price for up to 24 hours without penalty or payment, as long as the reservation is made seven or more days ahead of travel. Spirit claims that allowing passengers to hold seats that they may have no intention of buying will prevent the airline from selling the seats to passengers who want them, and will eventually lead to higher costs for the airline and thus for the flying public.

So because Spirit is so concerned about higher costs to the flying public, they're adding $4 to every fare purchased, which, of course, will lead to higher costs to the flying public.

Got that? I didn't either.

Spirit was also mightily irked by the new D.O.T. rule requiring airlines to reveal all mandatory taxes and fees in advertised fares as well as earlier in the online search process. That threw cold water on Spirit's barrage of online and emailed fare campaigns touting $3, $9, $16 and similarly low advertised fares, which left out not just mandatory government fees and taxes, but also Spirit's well-hidden $33.98 "passenger usage fee" added to each fare bought online.

Passenger usage fee? What's that you ask? Some nefarious government tax? Nope. Just $34 that goes to Spirit's bottom line, sneakily bundled under a general "taxes and fees" heading attached to each fare, along with the usual mandatory airport and government fees and the aforementioned "unintended consequences" fee. The only way to avoid the "passenger usage fee?" Contrarily, you have to book your ticket at the airport with a live agent, which means a cab ride or parking fee, plus your time, which Spirit knows will end up costing consumers just as much as the fee itself.

In addition to all these non-optional fees, there's a shopping list of "optional" fees. A carry-on bag costs up to $40 each way. A checked bag can cost as much as $43 if paid for at the airport counter and that's only if it weighs 40 pounds or less; heavier than that and fees ranging from $25 to $100 each way kick in. (Most airlines allow you to check up to 50 pounds before "excess weight" charges apply.) And there are charges for seat assignments, too.

Oh, and the seats. Spirit's Airbus A320 aircraft have a "seat pitch" of 28 inches; compare that to JetBlue's 34 inches on the same aircraft (those six extra inches between rows are the difference between having your knee in your face or not).

So why does anyone fly Spirit? A lot of people don't. But to be fair, even with all these fees calculated in, whenever I compare Spirit's fares on a given route and day with those of other airlines, Spirit charges less -- sometimes a lot less -- especially if you book directly on Spirit's website (rather than via Kayak or Travelocity), and even more so if you apply one of their frequent $24, $35 and $50 promo codes.

It's simple. Love them or hate them, for many people in these struggling times, Spirit is all they can afford. It's either Spirit or stay home or drive (and with gas prices hovering at $4 a gallon, it's sometimes cheaper to fly Spirit than hop in the old jalopy). And you can avoid most of the fees if you have to. Pack light and small so that your carry on fits under the seat in front of you (no charge for this). Don't ask for an advance seat assignment. Buy your fare at the airport. Apply a promo code to wipe out the passenger usage fee.

It's not pretty, it's not comfortable and sometimes I think Spirit's whining is just another way to get free publicity. But, with airfares rising, Spirit is growing and in this era of airline consolidation it's the closest thing we still have to a true low-cost airline. Sorry, Southwest, that's not you anymore.