A Spirit Airline flight from West Palm Beach Florida lands at Atlantic City International Airport

Ben Fogletto

Spirit Airlines, poking fun at a new consumer report that characterizes it as the nation’s most complained-about carrier, is thanking the “99.99 percent” of its customers who haven’t been griping.

At the same time, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said that most of the customers who filed complaints just don’t understand the discount airline’s a la carte pricing strategy.

Baldanza, in a statement to the media in markets where Spirit flies, said there is “more to the story” than simply looking at the number of complaints lodged against Spirit with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Over the past five years, Spirit has generated the highest level of complaints of any major airline, according to a report released last week by the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

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Responding to the report, Baldanza said the number of complaints against Spirit has fallen 30 percent in recent months and is small to begin with — an average of eight per every 100,000 passengers. Spirit generates about three times as many complaints than any other airline, the figures show.

Baldanza said most of the customer complaints against Spirit stem from its low-cost business model. Spirit, the dominant airline at Atlantic City International Airport, touts its no-frills atmosphere and a pricing structure that it says keeps its base fares lower than other carriers.

“Offering our low fares requires doing some things that some people complain about — more seats on our planes with a little less legroom, no Wi-Fi or video screens, and no refunds without insurance; however, these reduce costs, which gives our customers the lowest fares in the industry,” Baldanza said in his statement. “Judging by the number of customers on our planes and repeat customer rate, most people like this trade-off.”

Although it offers bargain fares, Spirit charges extra for such things as seat selection, baggage, food and even a bottle of water. Spirit says it gives passengers the option of not paying for things if they don’t want them, while other airlines “bake” extra costs into their ticket prices.

Baldanza said Spirit is working to reduce complaints by helping customers to better understand its pricing practices.

“We know some customers are surprised by our unbundled, a la carte model, and that creates some complaints,” he said. “That’s why we’ve committed Spirit to two key objectives: helping all of our customers learn how to fly on Spirit while keeping more money in their pockets and sustaining our great safety record, while we continue to improve our operational reliability, which is already competitive with other airlines.”

Baldanza insisted Spirit will not overhaul its pricing strategy “just to reduce the complaints of a few customers.”

“Doing that would raise prices for everyone, compromising our commitment to what our customers have continuously told us they truly value — the lowest possible price,” he said. “We will continue to work in every way we can to help our customers get where they want to go, safely and reliably, for less money.”

Meanwhile, Spirit has launched an irreverent fare promotion to thank the customers who haven’t filed complaints against it. The deal offers a $24 discount on ticket prices for travel this fall.

“Spirit is celebrating the 99.99 percent!” the airline proclaimed in a press release. “That’s right, over 99.99 percent of our customers did not file a complaint with the Department of Transportation in 2013. To the 0.01 percent — that’s OK, we know we aren’t the airline for everybody (though we’d love for you to save by flying with us again!).”

Spirit has long been known for its edgy promotions and advertising. Recently, its ads spoofed Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal and the troubled website for the national Affordable Care Act.

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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