RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Spring break season is here. And for some travelers booking a flight when everyone else is flying is like trying to beat an airline at its own game. Recently I spoke to someone who has run an airline to talk about prices.
BEN BALDANZA: Almost no matter what you pay on an airline somebody always feels a little apprehensive that maybe somebody got a cheaper fare than they did. And in most cases they're probably right about that.
MONTAGNE: Ben Baldanza was the CEO of discount carrier Spirit Airlines, the airline loved for its prices but loathed for its frugality. But that's life, he says.
BALDANZA: Airlines sell what the economists call a spoilable product. Once the airplane takes off, if the seat is empty the ability to get revenue for that seat is lost forever. So someone who needs to go tomorrow might have a stronger demand and be willing to pay a little more than somebody who can plan far in advanced.
MONTAGNE: What is the best way to get a cheaper ticket aside from flying just simply on a cheaper airline?
BALDANZA: (Laughter) Well, obviously if you can buy a little further in advance that's a better thing. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the lowest travel days of the week. So if you could travel on a Tuesday and Wednesday you're likely to be able to get a lower fare. Airlines are businesses. If they have more empty seats they're going to price them competitively to try to fill them. If their seats are filling up they're going to take advantage of that supply-demand and try to price it up.
MONTAGNE: Low ticket prices were key to Spirit Airlines - right?
MONTAGNE: You created videos, TV ads making fun of how much consumers hated the experience of flying on the cheap but love the bargain prices. Remind us of that.
BALDANZA: People hate all kinds of things about all kinds of airlines. And we just tried to take a more own-it kind of attitude toward that.
MONTAGNE: Well, in an amusing way - right?
BALDANZA: Yes, that's right.
MONTAGNE: You would call it the bare fare, the naked service because it was so stripped-down.
BALDANZA: Well, that's right. And it - and, again, it's a - Spirit isn't Delta and it's not JetBlue. They're all three very different airlines. And so one can't just look at just the prices and say, I want that airline without thinking about what comes with that price.
MONTAGNE: Well, it's kind of stunning - this new world of paying for extras that used to be part and parcel of the experience. I think it's startling to a lot of people.
BALDANZA: I think it is, too. But when people think about it logically it makes sense. There are absolutely differences in the seats on airplanes. And, you know, we don't think about that oddly when we go see a Broadway show or when we go to a ballgame. You expect seats close to the stage are going to be more expensive than those in the nosebleed section. So the airlines have taken advantage of that and said if the real estate on the plane isn't all equal, so we'll price up the areas that are a little nicer to sit in or that more people would demand. And that tends to be aisle seats or window seats or seats closer to the front of a plane or in some cases if the seats have more legroom or things like that.
MONTAGNE: Well, which gets us to regulations. Congress is now looking at regulating such things as seat sizes. Is it possible that you at Spirit - but, you know, other airlines - just went too far?
BALDANZA: You know, I don't think so. I think this is a case of the one hand not knowing what the others doing in the government, which is the government already regulates seats in the industry and they do it through the FAA. The FAA tells airlines how many seats can be put on an airplane. And they do it based on how quickly an airplane can be evacuated. So the FAA absolutely regulates and says you can't put more than X-number of seats on this airplane type. And so the airlines can only do what the government tells them to do in terms of seats now.
MONTAGNE: Ben Baldanza was - until this year - CEO of Spirit Airlines. Thank you very much for joining us.
BALDANZA: Thank you so much, Renee.
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