Spirit Airlines CEO Unmoved by Dying Veteran & Customer Complaints
When it comes to low airfare, Spirit Airlines is often heralded as the industry’s leader, due to its business model, rooted in “unbundled” services. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza frequently touts the airline’s model as an innovative way to keep customers unburdened by charges and services they don’t need or want.
That premise sounds simple and serving enough, but as it turns out, it’s getting Spirit into more trouble than it may be worth.
According to US Department of Transportation statistics, in the month of January alone, Spirit drew 8.27 complaints per 100,000 passengers. United, on the other hand, came in second with 3.5 complaints per 100,000 passengers.
When told by Fox News that Spirit receives two-and-a-half times more complaints than even the second-most complained about airline, Baldanza was unmoved.
“That’s an irrelevant statistic,” Baldanza said. “If you ran a restaurant and out of every 100,000 customers, eight of them said they didn’t like your menu, would you change your restaurant? Why don’t we interpret that 99.92 of all customers have no complaints? Because that is what it says.”
Well, Baldanza didn’t know it when he spoke to Fox News, but that old complaint rate looks quaint next to the negative attention Spirit is now getting on the Web.
A Facebook page titled “Boycott Spirit Airlines” jumped from about 700 page “likes” to more than 20,000 after national media shared the plight of 76-year-old Vietnam veteran Jerry Meekins. Meekins requested a refund on a $197 Spirit fare after being told by his doctor that he should not fly due to the state of his terminal esophageal cancer. Since Meekin’s original request, Spirit has repeatedly said it will not be issuing the refund.
While another carrier’s policy might provide Meekin some reprieve, it turns out that he is majorly disserved by Spirit’s business model. Although Spirit base fares start out low, every additional service a customer may desire (or even require) that is usually included in the prices of Spirit’s competitors, tacks an extra fee onto the total fare. This includes a newly announced policy that will require Spirit passengers to pay $100 for carry-on bags that must be placed in overhead bins.
Since Meekin chose not to purchase Spirit’s $14 insurance, which would have made his ticket refundable, Baldanza says he is saddened about the former Marine’s diagnosis, but Meekin is out of luck as far as Spirit is concerned.
“Every customer chooses what services they buy,” Baldanza wrote in a company memo about the incident. “That’s all they pay for and not a penny more. Our approach treats each customer with respect and puts each customer in charge of their own costs—and no one else’s. Unfortunately, unexpected curves are a part of life for everyone.”
Since the Fox News story broke, the “Boycott Spirit Airlines” community has grown further and the majority of comments continually posted to the page are consistent with Spirit’s reputation as most-complained-about airline.
“I am a veteran and Spirit Airlines is no longer in consideration for any travel I may do. This is deplorable,” wrote one poster.
Another wrote, “I am too much [of] a gentleman to use the words that would accurately describe the CEO Ben Baldanza. To label him clueless would be a gross understatement.”
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.