The airline's entire staff stared at me when I boarded. My laptop bag did look a little odd, a combination of a satchel and something a bike messenger would use. I'd heard the phrase "packed like sardines" before, but this was a little ridiculous.
I was flying to Austin for South by Southwest, an annual conference with famous speakers. I was also questioning my decision-making ability. Spirit Airlines had nickel and dimed me with extra fees to the point where this flight was now more expensive than most, but the cramped quarters, piercing glares from the staff, and the weird vibe as I boarded were starting to make me wonder: Is this the worst airline ever?
Now, I have some proof.
A company called Luminoso, described as "a startup spun out of the MIT Media Lab that uses a branch of A.I. called natural language understanding to analyze (and derive meaning from) large amounts of text data," told me recently about its survey of 13,465 customer ratings. The survey was conducted between 2013 and 2017 and looked at a total of 19 airlines in categories like food, check-in, and entertainment.
Sitting way at the bottom of the chart is Spirit Airlines.
And I mean way at the bottom.
The A.I. routines identified the airline as the worst in food quality, entertainment options, seating, check-in process, and other factors. The only category where Spirit Airlines ranked higher was on value, although I've never felt that way about the airline. "Value" is a negative term in my book, usually a sign that you are getting ripped off.
What about the other airlines? Qatar Airways ranked the highest, clocking in at first in almost every category. Southwest and JetBlue ranked pretty low overall; American Airlines and KLM ranked in the middle of the pack.
The survey found that people tended to link security and the check-in process with comfort and legroom. We like to know people are looking out for us. Airlines can also turn the tide. The survey found that people who started out with negative reactions to an airline in the first leg of a journey would change their opinion drastically if they felt their needs were met during the second leg. Rebounding is possible.
Luminoso conducted a similar survey of five airlines (not including Spirit) in 2014. It analyzed 157,000 tweets and found that Virgin ranked highest and United ranked lowest.
This is the first time (as far as I know) that any airline survey has so consistently ranked one airline at the bottom of the pack. It matches up with my own experience, having flown countless times on every major airline in existence.
Spirit Airlines, you have some work to do.
Here is the complete chart: