clock menu more-arrow no yes

Spirit Airlines is the most on-time airline in America. Here’s why.

The budget airline everyone loves to hate may be the most efficient.

FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Spirit may be the most hated airline in America, but it’s succeeding on at least one metric: It’s the most on-time carrier in the country. According to Federal Aviation Administration data, 89 percent of Spirit’s flights were on time in October, putting it in front of the usual frontrunners Hawaiian Air and Delta. It also had the second-lowest rate of canceled flights. That’s a remarkable turnaround from 2016, when it came in last for on-time flights for 11 months in a row.

Any positive news of Spirit’s service may be surprising, as it has become America’s Ryanair — a budget airline punching bag that people love to loathe. Spirit’s draconian baggage policy, which charges for checked and carry-on bags and only includes one small personal item (think a Jansport backpack), has been especially ill received by travelers who are used to being allowed bigger bags. Spirit also, of course, doesn’t give out meals or offer any in-flight entertainment. It is a prime example of what a budget airline offers: nothing but a seat.

Along with its reputation for bare-bones amenities, Spirit also garnered media attention for an internal feud with its pilots. In 2010, pilots went on strike for five days over wage disputes. Last year, the airline sued its pilots union for refusing to fly extra routes, which resulted in 200 flights canceled and 20,000 passengers stranded. A North Carolina court ruled in favor of the airline and ordered pilots to keep flying. The whole ordeal cost the company $45 million.

According to the Associated Press, Spirit still has a high rate of passenger complaints, but its service is improving due to a number of factors.

This year, Spirit Airlines pilots ratified a five-year contract that will raise pay rates by an average of 43 percent. According to TravelPulse.com, former CEO Bob Fornaro also set goals for on-time arrivals by offering executive and management bonuses.

Aviation economics expert and ICF Aviation executive Samuel Engel says that where Spirit concentrates its routes may be another factor. “A disproportionate share of Spirit’s departures are in Florida and the South, which helps with weather issues,” he writes. “And a relatively small share of Spirit’s departures are in the congested Northeast airports.”

Oddly enough, Spirit’s baggage policy might also be a factor in its improved performance, according to Engel. “Carry-ons are the most common bottleneck for aircraft boarding,” he wrote in an email. A few years ago, Spirit’s carry-on policy may have cost it time as people were not used to only being allowed such a small bag, but a few years in, those who choose to fly Spirit know what they are getting into and are more likely to bring a correctly sized bag. This creates a smoother, faster boarding process.

As airlines worldwide continue to struggle, more are moving toward the ultra-basic amenities model to cut costs. It doesn’t make for a glamorous flying experience, but at least with Spirit, you’re now more likely to reach your destination on time.


Watch: The better way to board an airplane

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.