‹ Writings

🧠 Musings

Spirit Airlines Isn’t That Bad


A few months ago my family and I found ourselves trying to plan a trip to southern California during my college’s winter break. I couldn’t help but feel defeated as I looked at flight prices for the late-December period.

At the end of my hunt, it seemed like the cheapest fare through Spirit Airlines beat other airlines by a factor of 3-4x. After adding in Spirit’s fees for baggage beyond a single “personal item”, that factor reduced to about 2x. (I also tend to travel with emotional baggage, but luckily they don’t charge for that. For legal reasons, this is a joke.)

I decided to bite the bullet and fly what I thought was America’s most grotesque airline. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my near coast-to-coast journey, and I can see myself flying Spirit more frequently. Moreover, it’s possible that flying a budget airline like Spirit is the best gift you can give the environment if flying is a must.

An Obligatory “Personal Context” Section

I’d generally kept in touch with news, culture, and national politics in America despite being in India during high school. I knew my long-term plan was to return to the States for college and work, so I guess I felt some kind of obligation to keep up with happenings. Knowledge of global news was also a bit of a weenie-measuring contest in high school, but those stories are for another time.

I had a brief Trevor Noah phase in high school as well. It was refreshing to hear news with a humorous spin via The Daily Show, and I also thought it helped me pick up on some cultural cues in America. However, this had its drawbacks: I think it amplified the “echo chamber effect”, and humorous exaggerations may have misled the formulation of my own opinions on things. The former is largely the reason I stopped watching Noah, and I believe the latter conditioned me into believing Spirit Airlines was a gift from the devil himself.

I’ve flown around a fair bit in India. I’m pretty neutral on these experiences overall, and I think Indian airlines are pretty much the same as American ones. It’s the same Airbus, Boeing, or Embraer aircraft; annoying excess baggage charges; pricey and bland food (except the Indigo sandwich… something about that hits different); cramped toilets. Some budget airlines even plaster the backs of seats and overhead baggage bins with advertisements! In-flight WiFi was legalized far later in India, though I still haven’t heard of domestic carriers offering it yet.

Given my experiences with Indian airlines and India in general, I was somewhat confident in my ability to survive Spirit. Because of The Daily Show and meme culture I thought my flights were going to be a challenge, but I was also questioning how bad an American budget airline could possibly be, given the baseline of “comfort” is generally higher in this country. I’m happy to share that I was satisfied with my Spirit experience.

Two Legs

The First Leg

This flight was on one of Spirit’s older A319 aircraft. I definitely chuckled when I entered the aircraft as the interior was literally the blandest I’ve seen yet. The seats may have had a lower cushioning effect than benches at the gym. Heck, the seats didn’t even have distinct headrests. It felt like sitting on an ironing board.

After the usual safety presentation, I got to hear what I thought was the funniest flight attendant joke of the year. It went something like this: “We are now closing the doors for this aircraft. Please ensure your destination is Los Angeles; if not, you will be joining us for the journey anyway”. I think the deadpan delivery made it even funnier. However, hearing the same joke get recycled during my return trip made it lose its charm. Still, I appreciate the quirkiness.

Despite the redeye-like timing of this flight, I probably only slept for about 20% of the flight duration. Besides this obviously being a result of my horrible sleep schedule, I think it was also because I was in a middle seat with both my neighbors encroaching into my space. I’m just glad I’m slim enough to have avoided skin-to-skin contact with them.

I had also forgotten to download TV shows or movies to watch during the flight, so it was a pretty boring time. Using the reading light in a dark plane feels weird, so reading was off the menu. Thus, my brain was basically on idle for a few hours, though it’s also the time I made mental notes for this blog so I suppose it wasn’t all in vain.

We had a brief “is there a doctor on board this flight?” moment as well. I assume the situation was resolved because we did not make an emergency descent or get a visit from medical professionals upon landing.

Regardless, I made it through the flight and was able to recover my sleep after landing in Los Angeles. Time zones can be a wonderful thing sometimes.

The Return Leg

First off, the scheduling of this flight was interesting. I think we decided to end our trip on December 31 because flight tickets were cheap. Due to limited timing options, I was on a flight that would be in the air as we welcomed the new year! I think we must have been over the southern tip of Lake Michigan when the local clock struck 0000. The flight crew made a little celebratory announcement, so that was my new year’s celebration.

Another product of this scheduling was that I missed the majority of the College Football Playoff semi-final game between Michigan and Georgia. I was bummed about this before the game, but I watched the highlights soon after landing and no longer regret my decision. I’m sorry Wolverines.

This trip was on a newer A321, and the interior was pretty different. Still the same “sitting on an ironing board” vibe, but less bland. I had an F window seat so I was no longer sandwiched. My neighbors were an old couple who mostly slept through their journey.

The downside? I’d watched them board and couldn’t help but think I’d be hassling them if I asked to be let through to the bathroom mid-flight. So I wound up being dehydrated and holding-in-my-urine (there should be a word for this) the entire 4.5-hour flight. I still don’t know if this was the right thing to do, but it did keep my social anxiety at bay.

I had learned from my first leg mistakes though and brought some entertainment to this flight. Netflix’s Challenger documentary was surprisingly interesting, and it was fun to learn about the accident investigation process beyond what I’d heard in passing conversation about O-rings and ethics in engineering.

A Note on Legroom

I stand at a lanky 6-foot plus height so my biggest discomfort while flying is usually legroom. I don’t have high expectations regardling this; all I want is a comfortable seating position where my knees are bent 90 degrees with my feet firmly planted on the ground. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs felt welcomed in Spirit’s cabin! For some reason, I had equated “budget carrier” with less-than-comfortable” legroom, and this was not the case in either of my journeys.

I think the thin seat design aids in this as they can pack in more rows of economy seating while keeping legroom at a baseline acceptable level. Furthermore, since Spirit’s seats can’t recline, I never had to worry about getting my knees smashed by the person in front of me. Such enforcement of a no-recline policy is the kind of Authoritarianism I can support.

Safety (Dance?)

While I was bored during the first leg of my journey, it struck me that Spirit is probably no less safe than other carriers. All airlines have to stick to FAA procedures during flights and for pilot training, so there’s a baseline level of competency and enforcement expected everywhere.

I’ve only ever seen Spirit use the Airbus A319-A321 family of aircraft, and I sense that this also helps safety, besides business costs. I can see maintenance across a fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft being cumbersome and prone to human errors, so this is avoided. Staffing also becomes simple since pilots, flight attendants, and ground crew would only have to be familiar with one ecosystem of planes. Oh and of course, it’s not Boeing, whose public trust has been undermined in recent years.

My guesses were somewhat confirmed as well: as of writing, no Spirit airplane has been involved in a fatal accident.


I don’t know how to rate things on scales from 1 to 10, but I’ll say that flying Spirit is something I’d certainly do again. Most of my discomfort was the result of my own poor planning or factors out of my control, so I don’t blame Spirit. I saved money on fare too, and the overall experience was no worse than my average flying experience. I’m happy to fly Spirit again.

Estimating Spirit’s Reduced Environmental Impact

While I was bored during the first leg of my Spirit journey, I couldn’t help but wonder if Spirit may actually be burning significantly less fuel compared to other carriers. It was pretty obvious that they offered a smaller variety of snacks and drinks (all of which had to be paid for, further reducing demand). They used significantly less material in their seating, and also did not carry a recliner mechanism for economy seats. Lastly, they also used extremely small tray tables.

I began doing some mental math on the flight and revisited it as I wrote this blog. This quickly became an exercise of its own, and I decided it would help to push it to a new page. Here’s why I think flying Spirit may actually be better than other airlines in terms of environmental impact!

~ Amal