In case you have been living under a rock, May has been a terrible month for Spirit Airlines. Sometimes good PR is just common sense. Sometimes a company just has to do the right thing, regardless of corporate policy and rules. It’s mind boggling that in this day and age, when millions of Americans use Facebook and Twitter, Spirit Airlines thought they could get away with not refunding a dying veteran’s ticket and that they wouldn’t pay a heavy price in the court of public opinion. What should have been a non-story was headline news for days and proved that bad publicity is much worse than no publicity at all.
Here’s what happened. A veteran, Jerry Meekins, bought a ticket from Spirit Airlines to visit his daughter. A couple of weeks later he found out that his cancer was terminal and his doctors advised him not to fly. Spirit Airlines refused to issue a refund and instead suggested that he should have bought travel insurance. If only a compassionate supervisor had made the human decision to refund the money, even if it was against corporate policy. What were they thinking? The media picked up the story and the public backlash was swift. Veterans groups offered cash to Meekins and Facebook users started a “Boycott Spirit Airlines” Facebook page which now has more than 40,000 “likes.”
The CEO of Spirit Airlines, Ben Baldanza, told Fox News ““It’s fair and reasonable for us to hold our customers to be accountable to the choices and decisions and promises they essentially make when they buy a ticket. Meekins actively chose not to purchase the $14 insurance, but then after his situation changed, he wants the benefit of that. We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins. However, this is a country and society where we kind of play by the rules,” he added. “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.”
After this story dominated the news for days, Spirit Airlines finally reversed course and agreed to refund Meekins’ ticket price and make a $5,000 donation to the charity of his choice, Wounded Warriors. How much damage has been done to Spirit Airlines? How can we calculate the damage that has been done to a brand in the course of a week? A lot of damage has been done and only time will tell how they can begin to rehabilitate their image. This story should be a cautionary tale for any company more concerned with the bottom line than with their humanity.