Spirit Airlines feeling veteran’s outrage after denying refund to dying vet

It sounds like a perfectly reasonable corporate policy. If you want to be able to get a refund on a flight you can’t take, you buy insurance. If you don’t buy insurance, you don’t get a refund. If you could, by begging and pleading and claiming special circumstance, there soon would be no takers for flight insurance. So, when a veteran who was planning a trip to see his daughter couldn’t make the flight because his doctor said his cancer was too advanced, he asked Spirit Airlines for a refund. They said nope.

Fox News picked up the story and from there it went to veteran’s groups around the nation. The response of Spirit to the hubbub: “We’re happy to look at [letters in support of Meekins]; however, we are standing by our decision not to provide the refund,” Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson told FoxNews.com.

So now veteran’s groups are trying to organize a boycott. No doubt the publicity and apparent callousness of the airline will hurt them.

No doubt most in crisis management would say to Spirit: don’t be ridiculous. Apologize. Tell the man you made a mistake and give him his money back. And that sounds reasonable. But from the CEO’s  chair, these things don’t look that black and white. What happens to our no refund policy. Forever after anyone looking for a ticket refund who has not purchased insurance will parade this story and the veteran outrage with a threat to cause the same problem for them. What does Spirit do? Change their refund policy? Make it easier for those not choosing insurance to get refunds? And how do they decide? Does a refund go to those who have the ability and will to raise a big online stink? Is that fair? Should decisions like this be made on a case by case basis?

The Fox News story was May 1. On May 4, this statement was published on the Spirit Airlines website (albeit, not easy to find):

Statement From Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines

 

 

MIRAMAR, Fla., May 4, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — “At a time of ever-rising airfares, Spirit Airlines makes commercial air travel affordable for many Americans. A very important part of keeping our airfares reasonably priced is our refund policy.

“Every day we seek to balance customer service with customers’ demands for the lowest airfare possible. But sometimes we make mistakes. 

“In my statements regarding Mr. Meekins’ request for a refund, I failed to explain why our policy on refunds makes Spirit Airlines the only affordable choice for so many travelers, and I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country.

“Therefore I have decided to personally refund Mr. Meekins’ airfare, and Spirit Airlines will make a $5,000 contribution, in his name, to the charity of his choice, Wounded Warriors.

“We have worked hard to build a great company that makes air travel affordable while making our employees proud and customers satisfied. All of us at Spirit Airlines extend our prayers and best wishes to Mr. Meekins.”


So the CEO is personally refunding the veteran. He explains why the policy exists and why it benefits the airlines customers. He apologizes for the lack of respect and compassion shown. He offers a $5000 charitable contribution.

This is all good and appropriate, but like most crises of this kind, will not undo the damage. Another sad example of too little, too late. I had to dig to get this part of the story. Most will not. They will only see the unfortunate quote from Misty Pinson in the Fox story, plus all the online anger. They will continue to see Spirit as heartless.

Spirit Airlines was clearly caught flat footed by this. They had one chance to get a message out and they blew it. There is no way Fox News is going to replay the story with their more considered response. And, by burying their statement in their press room which is actually their investor relations section of their website (that says something right there) they are getting very little bang for the bucks they committed to this. Here is one of the best reasons I’ve seen for anticipating this kind of crisis in advance and being ready with messages and responses the very moment something like this emerges.