Dispiriting: Flying Spirit's A320 in the Big Front Seat From Newark to Las Vegas
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="50" ground-experience="3" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="2" food-bev="15" service="12" pros="Comfortable seat, cheap prices." cons="Messy ground experience, no in-seat power, IFE or Wi-Fi and a surly crew." /]
As The Points Guy's first-ever reviews and travel intern, I knew that the pressure was on me to really expand the boundaries when it came to our flight reviews. The team as a whole is no stranger to caviar and Champagne in the Middle East's most opulent cabins nor to jetting off on far-flung journeys to the farthest reaches of the world.
I decided to go for something really bold and really push the envelope of what TPG and TPG readers dare themselves to experience.
So I flew Spirit.
On my first trip with Spirit Airlines, I flew coach from Baltimore (BWI) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL). I found it a solid, if mostly unmemorable, product that did exactly what it had promised for bargain-basement prices.
My second flight with America's most notorious carrier marked the end of my low-cost adventure throughout the country, and would position me to the western US, where I would pick up my first long-haul review flight to China (review coming soon!).
I wanted to compare the closest thing Spirit has to a premium product, the Big Front Seat, to similar seats on legacy carriers. What makes the Big Front Seat unique is that, despite boasting a hard product that's similar to a pricey first-class on a Spirit competitor, it's not treated as a distinct class of service.
So I had my points of comparison, both with rival airlines and Spirit's own standard seat. Would the Big Front Seat hold up on a five-hour transcontinental flight from Newark Liberty Airport (EWR) to McCarran Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas?
I was about to find out.
As a low-yield yet high-volume market, flights to Vegas are notoriously cheap from just about anywhere in the US. The 2,200-mile trek from New York to Las Vegas is especially competitive for airlines, as it's served by all three legacy carriers in addition to Spirit and JetBlue.
Just three days before I needed to be in Las Vegas, I hopped on Google Flights to see what fares were like. Considering the distance travelled, they were reasonable, all hovering in the low $200s range.
For this flight, though, we were specifically targeting Spirit's Big Front Seat, so I wasn't exactly shopping around. Spirit flights are best booked directly on its website, where you're given the greatest degree of customizability in building your flight experience.
As with my first Spirit flight, I purchased the Thrills package for its significant savings. Since the combo included a standard seat selection valued at $40 for this five-hour flight, upgrading to the Big Front Seat was only $46 more, as opposed to the $86 when upgrading from a bare fare. With the bulkhead completely sold out, I got a window seat in the second row: Seat 2F.
When all was said and done, I paid a total $358.28 for the one-way ticket from Newark to Las Vegas in Spirit's Big Front Seat. While it sounds crazy to spend this much when you can fly JetBlue or Delta economy for over $140 less, you really have to consider that I was essentially getting a stripped-down first-class seat, which other airlines were charging upwards of $600 for.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="3" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="N606NK" age="8.4" departure="06" departure-2="20" duration="5" duration-2="18" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I had just reviewed Spirit three days prior, so as I stepped out of my cab at Newark’s Terminal B, I knew exactly what I was getting into as far as ground experience goes — or so I thought.
Right off the bat, I found the check-in for this flight to be much more disorganized than my first rodeo with the airline, and that's saying a lot. Granted, I’m comparing two different departure cities, but I couldn't help but realize how strikingly different the two experiences were. At BWI, it had kiosk overkill with a serious shortage of bag-drop counters. EWR was the exact opposite: There were likely 75 or more passengers forming lines behind six check-in kiosks (two of which were broken) in no organized queue. The one employee stationed in the area was preoccupied helping a single passenger for the entire 20 minutes I waited for my turn.
Once I finally reached the kiosk, I scanned the barcode on my itinerary and quickly printed my boarding pass and tagged my bag. The actual process took less than a minute. Why the line was moving so slowly is truly a mystery.
With five open bag-drop counters and virtually no one in line, I was on my way to the security checkpoint within another minute.
The majority of Newark’s terminal was deserted. The small concourse serving gates B40 to B47, however, was full of activity. The TSA lines had projected wait times of up to 30 minutes, but as a TSA PreCheck passenger, I only took about 10 minutes to clear.
The eight gates in this small pier were shared by Delta and Spirit, both of which had a slew of early-morning departures. The terminal design itself was a bit outdated, and seating was fairly hard to come by.
About 15 minutes before boarding, I walked up to the podium of my gate, B41, which was still unmanned and lacked any flight information. (The agent later announced the display was broken.) Weirdly enough, the only two times this has ever happened to me was during these two consecutive flights on Spirit.
While last week it wasn’t a big deal per se, this time it was a recipe for disaster. Gate 41 was actually divided into two smaller gates, B41A and B41B, which were boarding two flights departing within 15 minutes of each other: my Las Vegas-bound Airbus A319 and a neighboring A321 headed to Fort Lauderdale.
When our boarding finally started (15 minutes later than scheduled due to the aircraft being “too hot”), the Fort Lauderdale boarding was in full swing. Our broken gate signage, combined with indistinguishable announcements for each respective flight, combined with dozens of gate lice shrouding the area, led to a complete mess. People were getting in the wrong line, only to be told at the podium that they were boarding the wrong flight. While nowadays barcode technology makes incorrectly boarded flights a rarity, the disorganized boarding process caused unnecessary delays, and many frustrated passengers.
After the crowd organized itself and the boarding line began to move more regularly, I stepped in and boarded with Zone 1.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="2" width="20" pitch="36" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Spirit offers the same Big Front Seats on all 135 Airbus aircraft in its fleet -- its A320/A321s are equipped with eight, while the smaller A319s have 10. They’re configured in a 2-2 layout similar to what you’d expect in a domestic first-class cabin. While the 36-inch pitch is definitely a tighter squeeze than the standard, it still offers a tremendous upgrade from the 28-inch pitch found across the rest of the cabin.
As I settled into 2F, I was impressed by how wide and comfortable the seat felt. The seat cushions were fairly plush, which was a welcome change from my previous Spirit flight, where seat padding was nonexistent. While comfortable, the seat was completely static: The headrest was not adjustable, and there was no recline or footrest. In other words, what you saw was what you got.
The tray tables folded out from the armrest and were plenty large to fit a laptop along with drinks and snacks -- again, a huge upgrade over the minuscule tray table found in rows 3 to 39.
I found the seat area to be pretty dirty. There were food crumbs buried around the edges of my seat cushion, and the tray table had sticky spots from previously spilled beverages. The leather seatback wasn't particularly clean, either.
The bathroom at the front of the cabin was pretty standard, virtually identical to the one I had experienced on the larger A321 from a few days prior.
Later in the flight, I used one of the two bathrooms in the rear of the cabin to avoid a line that was congregating at the forward galley. I was shocked to find it equipped with a 110-volt power outlet. Why Spirit arbitrarily chose this one lavatory over the others, I have no idea. But I guess now the secret is out: There's at least one place to charge your phone on a Spirit jet.
I thought that sitting in the Big Front Seat would result in a significantly higher score for this section than my previous Spirit flight, but the dirtiness of the cabin really detracted from that, limiting the improvement over the back of the plane.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="2" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Aside from the extra space, flying Spirit’s Big Front Seat is an experience identical to its standard product. Spirit only operates one class of service on all flights, so in practice, these are treated as glorified economy seats. They're the airline's most premium offering, but you still won't find any amenities like in-seat power or inflight entertainment.
With the airline planning to bring its fleet online starting later this year, one can only hope that they'll consider installing power outlets -- at least on the eight seats up front -- now that customers will be using their electronic devices more regularly.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="0" meals-purchase="Yes" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The food and beverage on Spirit is standard across the board, no matter if your flight is 45 minutes or knocking on six hours. On longer flights such as this one, though, there are two cabin services held, one shortly after takeoff and one prior to arrival. The food-for-purchase menu is in each seatback pocket and contains everything from cocktails to fruit juices and quinoa to cheese plates.
I ordered a bottle of water and bag of nut mix for a total of $7. In general, I find the prices on Spirit to be pretty reasonable compared to their other optional amenities. The airline is cashless, only accepting major credit and debit cards for onboard purchases.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="Two words: not great." /]
The service on this flight was much different than what I had experienced with Spirit just a few days prior. The flight attendants really didn't seem like they wanted to be there, and as a result they weren't particularly helpful to passengers.
For example, upon boarding, my seatmate realized the bottom cushion support in his seat had partially caved in, making it uncomfortable and borderline unusable. When he brought it to the flight attendant's attention, she was dry and apathetic toward the situation, simply offering to switch him to a middle seat in the back (which, in all fairness, may have been the only solution at the time). By the same token, though, he was rightfully frustrated over having shelled out the upgrade fee to secure a comfortable ride for the long flight to Vegas, only to now have to be crammed into a middle seat. After some tense conversations, the flight attendant somewhat begrudgingly agreed that she would notify the ground staff upon arrival to issue him an $86 refund for the extra that his seat cost.
While I certainly don't expect a flight attendant to magically repair a broken seat, her attitude toward the situation lacked empathy or understanding, which could have gone a long way even if the seat was damaged beyond immediate repair.
I really think Spirit's Big Front Seat has a lot going for it. The seat itself is a huge upgrade over the airline's standard product and is arguably the most comfortable "economy" seat flying the US. Apart from the seat, however, there are plenty of drawbacks with Spirit, whether it be the well-advertised lack of amenities or, in my case, subpar cabin cleanliness and lackluster service. This speaks toward Spirit's inconsistency: On my previous flight with the airline, I lucked out with both a friendly crew and nearly spotless cabin -- this was the deciding factor between the two flights, and what ultimately landed the Big Front Seat below the coach seat, score-wise. While the seat itself is definitely a big upgrade from the back of the bus, the rest of the experience was a letdown, whereas my first experience was overall better than I thought it would have been.
The real question is this: Should you choose Spirit's Big Front Seat over standard economy on another airline, assuming similar prices? It depends on what you value in a flight experience, but if you're strictly after a comfortable seat and can do without entertainment and other onboard amenities, this is definitely the seat for you.
All photos by the author.