Spirit Airlines gets 16 more runway slots at Newark Airport as consumer group raises concerns

Travelers will see more yellow Spirit Airlines jets taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport after federal officials reassigned 16 runway slots to the Florida-based airline late Tuesday.

The reassignment of the peak hour runway timings vacated by Southwest Airlines is intended to provide low cost options and improve competition for flyers using Newark Airport, US Department of Transportation officials said in a statement.

But a consumer watchdog group questioned the decision, citing Spirit’s poor record for canceled flights and on-time performance as recently as April in a USDOT report.

The 16 runway timing reassignments had been operated by Southwest Airlines since 2010 when it acquired them as part of a Department of Justice remedy to make competition more fair after the United-Continental merger.

Spirit and JetBlue Airways each recently applied for all 16 of the timings held by Southwest, and Alaska Airlines applied for four.

After a review, federal transportation officials determined that Spirit will be best able to provide competition with all 16 slots and is most likely to provide the lowest fares to the most consumers, officials said.

“We appreciate the DOT’s thoughtful analysis and are pleased to see this process come to a conclusion. Spirit will continue to promote competition and offer affordable, high-value travel options for guests traveling in and out of Newark and the New York Metropolitan area,” said Erik Hofmeyer, a Spirit spokesman.

Critics questioned whether the new assignments will this help ease the travel problems seen during the July 4th holiday weekend, which the consumer watchdog organization US Public Interest Research Group called “chaos.”

“This is a curious decision that we’re not sure is in the best interest of consumers,” said Teresa Murray of PIRG Consumer Watchdog, responding to questions from NJ Advance Media.

“DOT said this move would boost competition and cut costs for flyers, but there’s more to competition than just cost. The cost of a flight doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t get you there,” she added.

A June 2022 federal report ranked Spirit as having the highest number of canceled flights and third worst on-time arrival rate in April.

“For the last couple of years, Spirit has been plagued with high numbers of cancellations and complaints,” Murray said. “How do you reward that by giving the airline more takeoff and landing times at one of the busiest and most important airports in the country?”

A Spirit spokesman said the airline did better in June and cited USDOT reports that said Spirit ranked better than April numbers in March and February. In March, almost 60% of Spirit’s 538 arrivals at Newark were on time. All arriving flights at Newark had a 70% on time rate in March, according to USDOT.

“This summer, we’re running one of the best operations in the industry with high on-time performance and completion factors,” said Erik Hofmeyer, a spokesman. “Spirit has one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in the entire industry.

He cited a popular industry blog, Cranky Flier, that wrote in a recent article “Spirit and Alaska, however… you both deserve a standing ovation for being the most reliable operators this June.”

Spirit currently offers 500 daily flights to 67 destinations in the US, Latin America, and the Caribbean, according to its website. This month Spirit has up to 24 daily departures to 14 destinations with one new destination, Oakland, California, starting next month, Hofmeyer said.

“We plan to maintain our existing routes, which have grown over the past couple of years, and we’ll share details for new service additions at a later time,” he said.

The announcement comes after a rough holiday weekend when tens of thousands of travelers nationwide found their flights delayed or canceled over the busy Fourth of July weekend.

The delays and cancellations made Newark the sixth most problematic airport on Monday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.

On Friday, Newark had 67 flights, or 6.1%, canceled. Another 472 flights, or nearly 43% were delayed.

On Saturday, 84 flights, or 8.5%, were canceled, while 28.3%, or 279 flights, were delayed. And on Sunday, 33 flights were canceled, or 3.2% of the total. There were 174 flight delays, or 16.6% of the total.

The runway space reassignment at Newark Airport comes with conditions.

Spirit will have to report additional data on disruptions to its customers and on its ability to provide them with accommodations.

“These reporting requirements will enable the department to monitor Spirit’s ability to deliver on its customer commitment and permit the department to better quantify the financial impact of operational disruptions on travelers,” federal transportation officials said in a statement.

The Spirit spokesman said the airline will comply with the new reporting rules.

“Spirit is communicating with our federal regulatory agencies, and we follow all applicable laws, regulations and requirements,” Hofmeyer said.

PIRG sent a letter to the FAA on Friday outlining three steps to protect customers that should be included in 2023 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation.

The FAA should institute an industry-wide reciprocity agreement, holding airlines accountable for chronically delayed and canceled flights, and demanding clearer notices to passengers about their compensation rights under the law.

The FAA should adopt the FAIR Fees Act — short for the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act — in the 2023 reauthorization, the group said. That would prohibit airlines from charging baggage, seating and other fees that PIRG said are unreasonable. They also asked for stronger enforcement of passenger protections by giving state attorneys general the ability to enforce federal consumer protection laws.

The reassignment of runway slots in Newark also comes as Spirit and Frontier airlines are exploring merger. A shareholder vote on the merger scheduled for June 30 was put off until Friday. That will give Spirit more time to talk with Frontier and JetBlue Airways, which is also bidding for Spirit, the Associated Press reported.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.

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