Hear us out: Why Spirit gives Delta a run for its money in our head-to-head comparison
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In 2021, passengers may have new priorities when it comes to selecting an airline.
Take Delta Air Lines for instance. The Atlanta-based carrier has led the way in COVID-19 safety and cleanliness protocols since the onset of the pandemic. It remains the only U.S. airline to continue blocking middle seats across its entire narrowbody fleet through at least April 30.
On the other end of the spectrum are ultra-low-cost-carriers like Spirit Airlines.
While the Miramar, Florida-based carrier has increased cleaning efforts and only offered on-demand service, the airline hasn’t limited passenger capacity on board. Instead, Spirit has taken the approach that has worked for years: Keep costs low, and customers will come.
Delta and Spirit have completely divergent strategies, so we were intrigued to put them head-to-head on the popular leisure route between New York and Fort Lauderdale. Is Delta worth the price premium for a relatively short domestic flight? Or is Spirit the better value despite its expected lag behind Delta in some areas — at least on paper?
In the past, it would never have been a fair fight.
But Spirit has made enormous improvements in on-time performance, customer service and has an all-new refreshed loyalty program with actual elite status tiers. We still aren’t saying Delta and Spirit are competing in the same class. But what we tried to ask is: For more budget-conscious travelers, is Spirit now a viable option against an airline like Delta.
In this head-to-head, TPG’s Chris Dong flew Delta — in first class in one direction and basic economy in the other. Meanwhile, TPG’s Andrew Kunesh flew Spirit — in the Big Front Seat one-way and a standard seat on the way back. Read below for entries from both travelers on their experience, from entering the airport to the boarding process and beyond.
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Throughout the pandemic, Delta has often commanded a price premium on popular routes compared to the competition. After all, blocked seats mean fewer passengers on board. For the New York to Fort Lauderdale route in mid-January, Delta was the most expensive option for a weekday flight between both cities in either direction.
The outbound flight to Fort Lauderdale was in Delta first class and priced out at $347.40 while the return flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in Delta basic economy cost $103. These flights were booked about a week in advance.
Spirit flights have largely remained inexpensive during the pandemic. In fact, you can often find flights for well under $50 one-way. Of course, you’ll have to pay more if you want to select a seat, add bags or board early. That said, these add-ons are pretty reasonably priced, too.
The flight to Florida in a Big Front Seat cost just $75.50 ($37.50 for a standard seat plus an upgrade charge of $38) while the return flight cost $83.39 without a seat assignment. Both of these are great deals, especially when booking roughly a week in advance on a popular vacation route.
Yes, you read that right: The Big Front Seat leg was actually cheaper than the return flight without a seat assignment. It’s all about supply and demand. That’s why at TPG we always suggest pricing out all cabins — you never know what kind of prices are lurking out there.
For easier comparison, here’s a look at the cost per minute for both the Delta and Spirit flights:
|Route||Cabin||Airline||Cost per minute|
|New York-LaGuardia (LGA) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL)||First-class||Delta||$1.96|
|Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to New York-LaGuardia (LGA)||Basic economy||Delta||$0.61|
|Newark (EWR) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL)||Big Front Seat||Spirit||$0.45|
|Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to New York-LaGuardia (LGA)||Basic economy||Spirit||$0.52|
At the airport
In the pre-dawn morning hours, LaGuardia’s Terminal C was a ghost town at check-in, security and throughout the terminal. Like on my previous Delta flights, hand sanitizer stations were abundant and social distancing markers were visible during every step of the airport experience.
The gate area was also clear of waiting passengers, with an orderly boarding process from start to finish. During the pandemic, Delta is boarding passengers from back to front, with Medallion elite members and first-class passengers able to board at any time.
Before I arrived at the gate, I made a pit stop at the LGA Terminal C Delta Sky Club, where I grabbed a coffee and quick breakfast. The offerings were surprisingly robust and presented buffet-style — with breakfast sandwiches, salads and a full continental spread available. I was able to enter the SkyClub using the access included with The Platinum Card® from American Express.
In Fort Lauderdale, Delta departs out of Terminal 2 which it shares with Air Canada. Much of the terminal is under construction and the Sky Club there is temporarily closed. Unfortunately, that means limited facilities and rather cramped waiting areas. On a positive note, similar to LGA, check-in and security were a breeze.
The boarding area and process were a bit hectic with a nearly full flight (for Delta’s standards with blocked middle seats). There were many families traveling back to New York on my particular flight which meant children and strollers were a bottleneck during boarding. Thankfully, masks were worn — and the rules enforced — throughout the process.
— Chris Dong
As you’d expect, my experience with Spirit was a bit more straightforward.
After a long Lyft ride from my home in Queens to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), I was greeted with an almost-empty Spirit check-in counter. There were a few passengers checking bags before the early flight, but I didn’t see any lines or other situations that would make me uncomfortable in a COVID-19 world.
Likewise, security was easy. I have TSA PreCheck and made it through the combined security line in less than two minutes. There were only two other people in line, and we each had our own security lane.
I didn’t have lounge access before my flight, so I settled on a coffee and breakfast sandwich from the nearest Starbucks. Once arriving at the gate, I found that all passengers were seated and wearing masks.
Unlike other airlines, Spirit has continued to board by assigned group — not back to front. That said, it went pretty smoothly with most passengers respecting their boarding zone on the outbound flight. The flight wasn’t full so we completed the boarding process quickly.
It’s worth noting that Spirit uses Terminal 4 at Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airport. This is a nice terminal that’s shared with Avianca, Copa and JetBlue. There are plenty of open food options and shops that make the airport experience feel surprisingly normal. I had lunch at a Caribbean restaurant before boarding my flight home.
Unfortunately, boarding my return flight was a bit more hectic. The flight was full and there was plenty of crowding at the gate. Everyone I saw was wearing a mask though, so I wasn’t uncomfortable boarding. However, it would have been nice to see Spirit enforce its written boarding procedures.
— Andrew Kunesh
On the plane
For both the outbound flight to Fort Lauderdale and the return to LaGuardia, I flew on an Airbus A320. As mentioned, Delta is blocking middle seats in economy and blocking an adjacent seat in first class on all narrowbody aircraft.
My morning Delta flight was in first class, in a standard recliner seat. It was fairly empty with about 50 passengers total, and first class was less than half full. That meant plenty of space for all passengers to spread out.
At every seat — including in economy — is an adjustable headrest, decent recline and a tray table large enough to get some work done on a 13-inch MacBook.
Overall, the Delta cabin just looks slick from front to back with a blue mood light accent and dark blue seating.
From Fort Lauderdale, I had a basic economy ticket and was assigned a window seat about three-quarters of the way back. Even in Delta basic economy, you still get to bring a full-size carry-on on board and with a blocked seat, it’s more than tolerable.
Compared to first-class, obviously, it’s a tighter squeeze with 31 inches of pitch but legroom was plenty adequate for my 5-foot, 7-inch frame.
On my flight back to New York, there were many families who chose to sit together in a row of three. Of course, there were still plenty of blocked middles but the plane was a bit more full than I would’ve liked. With that said, the experience was comfortable enough for the two-and-a-half-hour journey.
— Chris Dong
I flew in Spirit’s Big Front Seat on the way down to Fort Lauderdale. I was one of four people seated in Big Front Seats, and had an entire row to myself. This wasn’t by design though — anyone could have booked the seat next to me as Spirit isn’t blocking seats or reducing capacity on its planes.
The seat is essentially a domestic first-class seat without recline. It has a tray table and a center console for drinks. This full-sized tray table was a huge help as I had to work during my flight. Unfortunately, this plane was not equipped with Wi-Fi — Spirit aims to have its Wi-Fi rollout completed by the end of the year. Wile Spirit has shown great improvement over the past year or so, Wi-Fi is a make-or-break amenity for me and like some other travelers. Spirit can’t roll this out fast enough — especially if it wants to capture more of the business market.
I flew in the bulkhead on the way down. The legroom was minimal, so I’ll sit in the second row the next time I fly Big Front Seat. The flight attendants were friendly and everyone stayed calm and compliant for most of the flight. I only overheard one instance of a customer being told to put on a mask through the flight.
For reference, the Big Front Seat pitch on Spirit’s A320 is 36 inches.
The way back, however, was not so great. I took a gamble and flew home to New York-LaGuardia (LGA) without a seat assignment. I found myself in an aisle seat toward the back of the plane. The flight was mostly full, but I luckily found myself with an empty middle seat. This was a huge benefit as Spirit’s seats are small, narrow and lacking legroom. Seat pitch on the A321 aircraft is just 28 inches.
The economy seat doesn’t have a full tray table and the backseat pocket is a net. This makes it difficult to get any work done on the plane as your laptop pretty much needs to stay in your lap. The tray table is simply a place to put your food or drink if you choose to buy anything on board.
Overall, I was impressed by the Big Front Seat experience — especially since my one-way flight down was only $85 all-in. The way back, however, was not nearly as fun. It’s next to impossible to relax in Spirit’s small seats, and a tiny tray table combined with no Wi-Fi means you probably won’t get any work done either.
— Andrew Kunesh
This is the area where Delta truly shines. At the gate area on both flights, agents were proactive in communicating COVID-19 protocols including mask enforcement, back-to-front boarding and encouraging social distancing.
Each aircraft to and from Fort Lauderdale seemed thoroughly cleaned as I closely inspected my seat, tray table and seatback pocket.
From blocked seats to Purell wipes at boarding to strict mask enforcement throughout the flights, Delta does an excellent job of adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Upon landing for each flight, a text message is automatically sent to every passenger to remain seated until each row in front clears. However, in practice, the deplaning process for both flights involved passengers crowding in the aisles.
— Chris Dong
Spirit was very strict with regard to mask enforcement. Most customers followed the rule, but I did witness one passenger being told to put on a mask on the way down. Likewise, I saw a fellow flyer being told to put his mask over his nose on the return flight. This attentive monitoring was refreshing to see and ultimately made me feel safer on the plane.
The flight crew also informed us that the plane had been sanitized between flights.
But that’s where the noticeable precautions ended. There were no hand sanitizer packets handed out or blocked seats anywhere on the plane. Spirit has continued to fill planes throughout the coronavirus pandemic which may be a concern for some travelers. But that’s not actually unusual. Full-service carriers like American and United are filling planes, too.
Deplaning was my biggest concern when flying Spirit. There was no order to the deplaning process, and customers crowded the aisle immediately upon landing. If you fly Spirit, I’d recommend waiting until the bulk of passengers deplane before you get up.
— Andrew Kunesh
Amenities and IFE
As a full-service carrier, Delta clearly comes out ahead. There is free messaging, seatback screens with a generous selection of entertainment (and a flight map), power outlets, seatback pockets and even free headsets for everyone on board.
I was even impressed to see the first-class lavatory stocked with Malin + Goetz hand lotion.
Finally, unlike Spirit, Delta offers onboard Wi-Fi which I used to get some work done. Gogo 2Ku provides the service with speeds that were decent enough. Wi-Fi is priced fairly reasonably at $15 for the duration of the flight.
— Chris Dong
Spirit doesn’t offer much in terms of amenities. The lavatories are small and — as mentioned — there’s no Wi-Fi. Likewise, there are no power outlets, USB ports, steaming entertainment or inflight monitors. Make sure to come with a charged tablet and movies to watch if you’re easily bored on planes.
There were adjustable air vents though, which is a relief during COVID-19 times. I kept mine open and blowing the entire flight.
— Andrew Kunesh
Food, beverage and service
Onboard service and catering have been curtailed on Delta during the pandemic.
For all domestic flights within the continental U.S., that means a selection of snack boxes in first class and a snack bag in economy and Comfort+. For the relatively short LGA to FLL route, this should suffice for many passengers.
Additionally, only beer, wine and water are served in first class and Comfort+ with just mini water bottles available in economy. While this is a service element I expected — and prepared for by caffeinating before the flight — it’s something you should keep in mind if you want anything more.
On both of my Delta flights, flight attendants went through the cabin quickly after takeoff to hand out snack boxes or snack bags and disappeared into the galleys shortly thereafter. However, they were quick to respond with a simple press of the call button.
— Chris Dong
Service was fairly standard on my outbound and inbound flights.
Big Front Seat and standard economy passengers can pick from a menu of snacks and drinks available for purchase. There were no physical menus on board but the flight attendant would show you a menu on an iPad upon request. I purchased a Diet Coke for $3.
On the way back, I purchased a $2 cup of coffee. Much to my surprise, the coffee tasted fresh and I was offered free refills by the flight attendant. Considering Delta hasn’t offered coffee through the pandemic, I’d say this actually gives Spirit a slight edge for coffee lovers.
Spirit seemingly had its full menu available for purchase — and the prices are reasonable. The airline even has a decent selection of beers (Bud Light, Heineken and Lagunitas IPA) that cost $8 apiece. This is less than what you’d pay at many Manhattan bars.
Flight attendants came through the aisle once on both flights. They made it clear that anyone who wanted additional food or drink could go to the front or back of the plane to place an order. I did notice a couple of flyers use the flight attendant call button to order a drink, too.
— Andrew Kunesh
Value is in the
eye wallet of the beholder. Clearly, Spirit comes out ahead on price and on this short-haul route comparison wasn’t all that far behind Delta when it comes to onboard service and catering.
Delta is taking more COVID-19 precautions like blocking middle seats and giving out hand sanitizer packets. This is a big benefit depending on how concerned you are about contracting the virus on an airplane. If nothing else, it’s great peace of mind.
So, which airline is the better deal?
If you can find a Spirit flight at a notable discount compared to Delta — and you don’t mind the different approach to COVID-19 precautions — you’ll likely have a perfectly fine experience on short domestic flights. In our head-to-head, the price difference (and value proposition) is in Spirit’s favor, especially when comparing the Big Front Seat to Delta first class.
Just make sure to charge your electronic devices at the airport, load your phone or tablet with movies and bring a water bottle (or a credit card to buy one).
From a cost perspective, Spirit is hands-down the best value. In most cases, you’ll save money flying Spirit even if you pick the Big Front Seat for both legs of your flight.
On the other hand, pick Delta if you want more space and feel safer on an airline that takes more COVID-19 precautions. The hand sanitizer and blocked seats go a long way for passenger comfort and safety in today’s day and age. But remember, barring any extensions, Delta’s blocked seating policy ends on April 30.
Feature photo by Chris Dong and Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy
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