JetBlue and Spirit: What happens when two airlines with bad customer service records merge?

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JetBlue Airways’ surprise $3.6 billion bid for “ultra” low-fare carrier Spirit Airlines sounded like a late April Fools’ prank to some passengers.

JetBlue claimed its offer, which would thwart a bid by Frontier Airlines to acquire Spirit, was a “superior” deal that would benefit customers and shareholders.

But will the joke be on air travelers? If the last big merger is any indication, maybe.

“If the merger means improved service and the end of Spirit’s poor treatment of passengers, then I’m all for it,” says Vince Marano, an electrician from Feasterville, Pennsylvania “But I would hate to see JetBlue get dragged down to Spirit’s level.”

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The conventional wisdom is that this unlikely airline combination could disappoint JetBlue’s customers and damage its brand. But a closer look at the customer service records of JetBlue and Spirit reveals it may already be too late.

And a review of the last big airline merger suggests that even if it isn’t, a combined JetBlue-Spirit would probably receive more complaints and deliver worse customer service for years to come.

JetBlue and Spirit have a lot more in common than you think

When JetBlue announced its unsolicited bid for Spirit earlier this week, CEO Robin Hayes declared the two carriers have “much in common.” He pointed to both airlines” focus on keeping costs low so they can “profitably” expand.

Besides that, JetBlue and Spirit seem completely different. Spirit Airlines charges customers for anything that isn’t bolted down, including carry-on luggage, snacks and beverages. JetBlue’s onboard experience has featured roomier seats in coach, complimentary broadband internet access, snacks and live TV programming.

Consumers consistently reward JetBlue with above-average service ratings. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index puts JetBlue at a respectable fourth place, behind Alaska Airlines, Southwest and Delta. JetBlue scores 77 out of 100, while Spirit ranks dead last among airlines with a 66.

But a closer examination reveals that JetBlue has a lot more in common with Spirit than it appears – and, for that matter, with rival Frontier. To find the similarities, you have to dig deep into the U.S. Department of Transportation consumer complaints database. Spirit Airlines was the most complained-about airline in 2021, with an eye-popping 9.76 grievances per 100,000 passenger boardings (the industry average is 3.06). And where is JetBlue on that list? Just two spots ahead with 6.77complaints per 100,000.

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Interestingly, Frontier is sandwiched in between them with 7.59 complaints per 100, so these three airlines are in good company: customers love to complain about them.

What happens when two airlines with lousy customer service records merge?

In February 2013, US Airways announced that it would merge with American Airlines to create the world’s largest airline. Both airlines had dreadful customer service records.

In 2013, the year American and U.S. Airways announced their merger, American ranked third for complaints, behind Frontier Airlines and United Airlines, and U.S. Airways was fifth, according to the DOT. After the merger, the new American Airlines remained one of the most complained-about carriers. The combined airline’s American Customer Satisfaction Index scores lingered in the low 70s for years after the combination.

Almost a decade after announcing its merger, American Airlines is neither the best airline nor the worst when it comes to service. Its American Customer Satisfaction Index scores hover in the mid-70s, and its rate of complaints is about average. So if history is any indication, it could take years before a combined JetBlue-Spirit ever flies as high as a pre-merger JetBlue.

Then again, no two airline mergers are the same, and it’s possible that the dynamics of this merger – if it goes through – will be different. Maybe Spirit will drag JetBlue down, as customers like Marano fear. Maybe the opposite will happen, and Spirit’s retrofitted planes and retrained cabin crew will bring the “JetBlue effect” to passengers in new cities.

Passengers are skeptical of a merger between JetBlue and Spirit Airlines

Some air travelers are skeptical of a JetBlue-Spirit merger. Jeanne Peloso, a retired medical administrator from Pleasantville, New York, says she’s been a fan of JetBlue since it launched in the late ’90s.

“I’m very loyal to JetBlue,” she says. But the last four months have been difficult, almost Spirit-like, she says. JetBlue has bumped her from flights and rescheduled her. She’s waited in “never-ending” lines on the phone and in person. It doesn’t feel like the same JetBlue she knew and loved.

“I think that JetBlue might want to get their own house back in order before they try to merge with another airline,” she says. “JetBlue prided itself on service. Sadly, that area of their business is gone – hopefully temporarily.”

Other travelers have told me similar stories of their recent JetBlue flights. The carrier, once the gold standard for airline customer service in the United States, has added new fees for carry-on luggage or offered service that’s on the same low level as discount carriers such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit.

“JetBlue ain’t what it used to be,” says Ronna Brown, a retired teacher from Tamarac, Florida.

Matt Murray, another loyal JetBlue passenger, says he watched the last big airline merger between American and US Airways with dismay. He listened to the promises made by airline executives about how the combined airline would deliver better service and more choices and then failed to keep those promises.

“I knew it wouldn’t be of any benefit to us flyers,” he says. “And it wasn’t.”

Murray, a real estate agent from Westport, Connecticut, fears the same thing is happening now. Whether Spirit ultimately merges with Frontier or JetBlue, it doesn’t matter. The net effect on customer service at the combined carrier will probably be negative.

“It’s gonna make driving or taking the train look good,” he adds.

Scott Lara, an administrator for a home care company in Jacksonville, Florida, agrees that no matter which airlines combine, they will probably fall well short of the assurances they gave passengers pre-merger. So when JetBlue promises to “deepen its longstanding commitment to Florida” with “supercharged” growth or when Frontier pledges to “change the industry for the benefit of consumers” by bringing “more ultra-low fares to more travelers in more destinations,” he doesn’t believe it.

“I’m concerned that mergers limit consumer choice and never bring down prices,” he says.

So what will the JetBlue-Spirit merger do for customer service?

The stunning announcement by JetBlue that it wants to buy no-frills Spirit Airlines has left air travelers bewildered and suspicious. And with good reason: The last major merger resulted in a mega-carrier that generated more complaints and delivered worse service, records suggest.

If a JetBlue-Spirit merger flies, it’s likely to have a similar result: instantly creating the most complained-about airline in America and delivering substandard service for years to come.

If there’s a silver lining to the dark clouds on the horizon, it is this: Whether Spirit merges with JetBlue or Frontier, there will be one fewer airline travelers have to avoid.

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The JetBlue-Spirit merger might not get past regulators. That’s the assessment of Kerry Tan, an associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. Regulators are likely to frown upon JetBlue’s intentions because of the airline’s size and routes, according to Tan. “Spirit-Frontier would have a better chance of getting Department of Justice approval,” he says.

Frontier is unlikely to give up. Although the other suitor hasn’t officially responded to JetBlue’s unsolicited offer yet, it will undoubtedly come back with a response in an effort to rescue the deal. That could determine which suitor Spirit chooses and, ultimately, which airline combination flies.

You’ll get to vote on this merger – eventually. Rank-and-file passengers don’t get to tell Spirit which airline to take to the altar. But ultimately, they can vote with their wallet. If a combined JetBlue-Spirit is as bad as some fear, avoiding it and giving your business to another airline will let you cast the most important vote in this merger – the one that really determines if the joined airline is successful or not.

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