It wasn’t so long ago that Spirit Airlines launching new service in a city would be met with a collective shrug or howls of laughter.
Pundits and late-night talk show hosts made a habit of poking fun at the airline. Its customer service and on-time performance ranged from bad to abysmal.
If Spirit showed up on any of the myriad lists that rank airline quality, it was probably dead last.
The funny thing is, passengers kept coming back. The airline was making money and growing. All the while, it was adding modern, more fuel-efficient aircraft to its fleet. Its workers were being trained (or retrained) to be customer-centric.
These days, about the only thing Spirit shares with its past is its name and its ultra-low- fare business model.
"Today's Spirit is not the Spirit that five years ago was the butt of industry and consumer jokes," said Robert Mann, president of airline analysis and consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co. in New York. "They're for real now."
Company leadership has "done a great job of fixing it, getting it back to being consumer-oriented and getting it efficient again," Mann said.
And, come June, Spirit will be the only folks in town who will fly you nonstop from Milwaukee to Los Angeles International.
Spirit announced the daily nonstop LAX service in a news conference Wednesday at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. The airline also announced it would begin daily nonstop service in June between Milwaukee and Orlando and Milwaukee and Las Vegas.
Mann pointed out the irony of Spirit, with its ultra-low-fare model, taking over service to Los Angeles, a route "that the original Midwest Express flew." The original Midwest Express was essentially an all-first class airline that by today's industry standards would be considered ultra-luxurious.
Spirit will have no competition on the nonstop Milwaukee to LAX service.
Spirit will compete with Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines on the Orlando and Las Vegas routes.
Passengers will no doubt benefit from the competitiveness of those routes. All three airlines are rooted in being startups and are not afraid to compete.
"It's going to provide good, solid competition for other low-cost carriers in the market and, frankly, even other business-oriented carriers in the market," Mann said.
Spirit, especially on the Las Vegas and Orlando routes and to a degree on the Los Angeles route, is clearly looking to gain a foothold with leisure travelers.
People in Wisconsin and Milwaukee tend to be frugal, which would tend to fit Spirit's business model.
The Florida-based airline bills itself as "the leader in providing customizable travel options starting with an unbundled fare. This allows our guests to pay only for the options they choose – like bags, seat assignments and refreshments – something we call 'Á La Smarte,'" according to a company statement.
The business model might take some getting used to.
"I would describe the market as value-oriented," Mann said. "Everyone's value spectrum is different in terms of service and what they are willing to pay.
The Airline Quality Rating, an annual project produced jointly by researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, has seen Spirit's ranking rise from 2015 when it was absolute last.
In the rankings for 2019, Spirit had vaulted ahead of legacy carriers United and American. (The rankings for 2020 haven't been released yet.)
None of that has been lost on the folks who run Milwaukee Mitchell.
"Spirit's legendary low fares will make it even more affordable for people from all walks of life to fly to and from Milwaukee," said Brian Dranzik, airport director.
"Attracting a new airline is a major accomplishment," said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. The airport is owned and operated by the county.
The new service also is attracting attention because it is nonstop, something that has become increasingly important to travelers as airlines have revamped their schedules to meet a downturn in demand brought about by COVID-19.
"Nonstop routes are incredibly important to leisure and business travelers alike, and it’s one of the first things meeting planners ask us about when deciding whether to hold their meeting in Milwaukee," said Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, the city's convention and tourism organization.
For its part, the airline says it has been studying the Milwaukee market.
"We've had our eye on Milwaukee for a long time, and we're excited to bring our unique value proposition to the Brew City," said John Kirby, vice president of network planning for Spirit.
In addition to taking Milwaukee and Wisconsin residents to other destinations, the airline says it will be looking to bring people to Milwaukee.
"Spirit frequent fliers can experience Milwaukee's great festivals and sports scene and enjoy fun outdoor activities just in time for summer," Kirby said.
Meanwhile, the airline continues to modernize its planes. This month, it announced an accelerated delivery schedule for new Airbus aircraft joining its fleet, which the airline says is "among the youngest in the industry."
That is part of the airline's renewed focus on customers, Mann said.
"From a customer-facing perspective, it's just doing a much better job than it ever has," he said.
Spirit's new service in Milwaukee begins June 24.