AOL Mystery Flyer: Spirit Airlines Report Card

PhillipC, flickr

No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?

Read on to see how Spirit Airlines scored on yesterday's flight to New York, La Guardia (originated in Tampa, with a layover in Fort Lauderdale).

How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
5/5: When I called customer service the morning of my departure, the operator was very friendly. His name was Herschel (he told me that at the beginning and end of the call), and he used my name a few times during our conversation--a touch that seemed personal without being intrusive. He also asked how I was doing, and seemed pleased when I asked the same in return. He was friendly and professional throughout. I requested a seat by the window and Herschel explained I would have to pay; he then told me the prices for the various available seats. When I declined to pay for a change, he asked if there was anything else I needed, so I asked about baggage allowances, and he explained that, too. Then we said goodbye. I'm awarding the maximum amount of points to Herschel because he was friendly, professional and helpful without being robotic. Those things matter to me.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
4/5: In Tampa, I waited for about 15 minutes to check in at the full-service check-in counter. The ticket agent was very friendly and seemed sincere when she wished me a good flight. I appreciated that she made eye contact with me and didn't make me feel rushed as I made my usual inquiries about food (snacks and drinks for sale) and onboard entertainment (none). I asked her if a cup of water was free on board if I had to take a pill and she said "no." A personal touch I appreciated: she suggested that I might want to purchase water in the airport itself, since buying it in-flight would be more expensive. This made me feel like she was on my side.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
3/5: There was no one in line at the gate-side counter when I went up to ask for a seat change prior to departure. We were not boarding yet, but the gate agent seemed occupied with other things. She was cordial with me, although not particularly friendly, and I did not feel inclined to linger and ask more questions after she stifled my seat change request with a brisk (but not unfriendly--let's call it neutral) "Sorry, it's a full flight."

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
2.5/5: When we were waiting to taxi, the flight attendants came down the aisle to make sure that everyone was buckled up, that cell phones were off, etc. I was trying to catch their eyes to ask where I could pick up the bag that I was forced to check at the gate before boarding. Granted, this was not the time to ask that question, but it was an opportunity to test friendliness. However, it was impossible to get the flight attendants to look at me after two full passes down the aisles, so I gave up. During the drink service, I asked a different flight attendant the baggage question and she answered it patiently and thoroughly while pausing the drink order. (She told me it would be at baggage claim, with all the other luggage.)

Later, I made my way to the back of the plane, where two flight attendants were standing, enjoying a snack. I asked if I could have a wet paper towel to clean my tray table. One of the attendants pointed to the lavatory and said: "Isn't there one in there?" I said: "Oh, yes, I'm sorry." Then I asked if she knew how I could change my return flight. She said: "You'll have to do that at the airport." I asked if she knew what the change fee was; she said "no" and asked the other flight attendant, who simply gave me an exasperated shrug and an "are you clueless?" look. At the end of the flight, this attendant gave me an extra minute to shut down my laptop without getting annoyed; I appreciated that.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
3/5: General interactions between other passengers and flight personnel seemed fine (they probably weren't as inquisitive as I'd been). Especially during boarding, when helping passengers rearrange their things in the overhead bins, the flight attendants all seemed polite and helpful. Service was very all business throughout the flight--no friendly banter, not a lot of personality, but efficient nonetheless.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
4/5: When I stepped off my initial flight from Tampa, I asked the Fort Lauderdale gate agent waiting outside the gate where to find my connection to La Guardia. (I could have walked to the nearest "Departures" screen and looked for myself.) But she stopped what she was doing, looked at a document she had and directed me to the gate in a manner that was not at all impatient-especially considering the chaotic surrounds of the Spirit terminal, which was teeming with passengers and booming with loud announcements.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
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