by Mac Jaehnert (@macjaeh)

Stories about air travel woes all begin to sound the same after a while. For decades the hellish monotony of the flying experience has served as one of comedy's most cliched topics. With today's comedians (and airline customers) increasingly willing to broadcast their thoughts via social media, it seems like everyone has shared or heard a story recently about an air travel nightmare. 

But lately I've noticed a trend among friends posting about their latest travel trials and tribulations - Spirit Airlines. I've never flown with them myself, in part because based on what I've heard, the average customer experience feels a bit like this from the moment you confirm your flight:

But my friends can sometimes be whiny knuckleheads, and don't always make for the most representative sample. So I decided to let the data speak for itself and run an analysis on how the social media world felt about Spirit compared to various other carriers. I set off digging into the numbers to see if there was any truth to the growing chorus of complaints about them I felt I was seeing.

Using social media listening software, I took a look at all the conversation online around Spirit, American, Frontier, Southwest, and Delta. The software uses natural language processing to determine the sentiment (relative positivity or negativity) of all public social conversation about a given topic, and how passionate they are about that given topic relative to others.

After processing two years' worth of social data, the results are in:


The only positive thing that can be said about Spirit's social presence is that at least it's the smallest of all the ones measured, so the negativity might not be spreading as far or as fast as brands like American Airlines with nearly 20x the volume of social conversation.

Spirit is the only airline on the list with an overall negative sentiment rating, meaning that there are 18% more detectably negative posts than positive ones about the brand. As a general rule, there should never be a reason for a professional brand to dip below 0 sentiment long term. If you are actively listening and responding to your customers, helping them turn negative experiences into positive ones, you should at least be able to maintain a neutral rating at the bare minimum.

What separates Spirit from the rest of the pack, in my estimation, boils down to their (lack of) customer service. Unfortunately, Spirit doesn't take the same approach to customer service as many other airlines with dedicated support teams handling requests through Twitter and other platforms. While Southwest employs a team of social support specialists, Spirit decided last year to automate their Twitter support system, framing their lack of responsiveness as a focus on customer savings.

Their Twitter profile reads "A big social media team costs money, so we put our feed on Autopilot to save you cents on every ticket. Specific question? " and respond to customers with canned responses that appear designed to generate more rage than relief. 

Digging in further, we can learn a bit more about what exactly fumes people so much about Spirit. When looking at the hashtags most commonly associated with Spirit, one that stands out prominently is #JimCrowAirlines, stemming from an incident involving alleged mistreatment between the airline and a passenger of color. 

Other hashtags like #neveragain, #fail, and #signofthetimes don't bode well for Spirit's overall online goodwill.

When we look at the specific emotions driving the sentiment ranking for Spirit, the frustration becomes even clearer:

Not great, Spirit.

While Spirit's model of customer service by attrition hasn't stopped them from becoming the most profitable airline in the country in the short term,  I truly wonder how long they can afford to allow their brand credibility to erode before no amount of discounting will bring customers back.