More to Business than Money!

My mother often exhorted me to appreciate that “if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.”  I typically adhere to that motherly wisdom and it has served me well.  On this occasion, however, I have to sidestep Mom’s sage input.  Spirit Airlines, a low-fare, no-frills, air carrier based out of Ft Lauderdale, Florida has reached a new low when it comes to insensitive, rigid, customer-unfriendly policies.

You have likely heard of the plight of 76 year-old Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam war veteran whose end stage cancer and doctor’s input resulted in him cancelling a Spirit Airlines flight to visit his ill daughter in New Jersey. After initially denying    Mr. Meekins request for a cancellation refund of an approximately $200 ticket, the company continued to implode.

Here are a few of the ensuing official utterances from Spirit spokespeople, “At Spirit, we treat all of our customers equally and with respect. That means our non-refundable fares are non-refundable – for everyone. We are very saddened to hear about Mr. Meekins’ diagnosis and sincerely hope his health improves and that we have the opportunity to serve him again on his current ticket and many more flights.”

After experiencing days of consumer outrage here’s the unapologetic response from Ben Baldanza, the CEO of Spirit, the airline that not so coincidentally leads the country in customer complaints, “A lot of our customers buy <travel> insurance and what Mr. Meekins asked us to do was essentially give him the benefit of that insurance when he didn’t purchase the insurance.… Had we done that, I think it really would’ve been cheating all the people who actually bought the insurance … and I think that’s fundamentally unfair…We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins, however, this is a country and society where we kind of play by the rules…And he wanted to really not do that and that’s really not fair to the 10 million other Spirit customers and that’s why we made that decision.”

Personally, I was willing to offer free consultation to Mr. Baldanza as to how he could have taken a “values based” customer-centric approach to Mr. Meekins’ circumstance and provided a successful resolution for Mr. Meekins, 10 million Spirit customers, and Spirit itself; however, before I could tender my offer and while writing this blog Spirit’s leadership reconsidered.

The breaking PR statement quoted CEO Ben Baldanza, in part as follows “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.”

I understand that Spirit Airlines is a discount carrier competing almost exclusively on price but in the end, as I have said previously, “all business is personal” and if your company can’t be flexible enough to address some of the unique and extreme circumstances of customers, it is unlikely you will survive.  I will be interested to see where things go from here for Spirit Airlines. Will we, and will Spirit Airlines, learn that adherence to policies without input from values and compassion ultimately results in more that $200 of nonrefundable ill will?

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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli


  1. Douglas Brown on May 9, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Having been in retail for 20 years i’ve dealt with my share of customer situations and unfortunately i’ve used the same excuse as a way to justify not bending company policies. Fortunately I don’t treat customers in that manner anymore. I say two things to my staff on a regular basis, “It shouldn’t be difficult to do business with us/shop at our store” (which probably came from one of these podcasts) and “When you feel the need to prove you’re right you’re wrong”.

    Thanks for so many great books on culture and service, I’m glad you’re doing your podcast again (and that it’s still available on Zune)!

  2. Joseph Michelli on May 10, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    It is a maturation processes isn’t it? We have to move from a rule based morality to a discernment morality. While imperfect, I enjoy the challenge of striking a balance for consistency and customization of enriched service experiences. Thanks for your comments and I am thrilled to be working with you again.

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