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The Charlotte airport is about to welcome another low-cost airline

Spirit Airlines is making its debut in Charlotte in June, the latest North Carolina location for the low-cost carrier.

The airline announced Tuesday it would expand its service to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, its fourth North Carolina destination in less than a year. The carrier announced its entrance into the Raleigh-Durham market last month. It started service in Asheville and Greensboro in 2018.

The airline will offer daily direct service to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Orlando, Newark, N.J., and Baltimore/Washington starting June 20. Tickets are on sale now.

John Kirby, Spirit Airlines’ Vice President of Network Planning, said the airline has been considering the Charlotte market for a long time. “There’s been more urgency as of late as the airport has become more constrained in terms of gates,” he said.

Charlotte Douglas, American Airlines’ second busiest hub, has 106 gates, but the airport is expanding as part of a $2.5 billion capital improvement program. Brent Cagle, aviation director for the airport, said the nine new gates that opened last summer as part of the capital improvements helped accommodate Spirit’s arrival.

Charlotte Douglas doesn’t have an incentives program, Cagle said, but it charges some of the lowest fees to carriers of any major airport.

“We believe that that really is the incentive, and the growth of the community,” he said.

In November, low-cost Mexican Volaris added flights from Charlotte to Guadalajara.

Cagle said Spirit approached airport officials in 2018 about the planned expansion. Spirit plans to take over one of two common-use gates at the airport, the airline said, which is currently used by budget competitor Frontier as well as Air Canada.

Focus on leisure travelers

American Airlines still operates about 90 percent of the flights at Charlotte-Douglas, but Kirby said Spirit focuses on a different customer than American.

“It’s not really about competing with American,” he said. “It really is focused on leisure customers, not on business customers.”

The airport’s ticket prices are higher on average than most. The average domestic fare out of Charlotte Douglas in the second quarter of last year was $427, or $78 higher than the national average, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“What we’re seeing now is really encouraging in that as the local region grows, that helps to promote or incentivize airlines to want to come to the market,” Cagle said. “And that competition in the market helps to mitigate ticket prices.”

Florida-based Spirit Airlines operates over 600 flights a day, and Charlotte will be its 73rd destination.

A round-trip ticket from Charlotte to Orlando costs around $200, with a slightly higher fare on the weekends, according to Spirit’s website. But like many budget carriers, the airline charges extra fees for a carry-on bag, which can range from $28 while booking online to $65 at the gate.

“We come in with daily frequencies, multiple destinations,” Kirby said. “We really do that to gain some relevance in the marketplace sooner.”

Spirit has often ranked poorly in customer satisfaction surveys, but last year it made headlines when it had the highest percentage of on-time flights of any carrier in October, according to a report from the Department of Transportation.

Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y., said the airline has turned its reputation around under the leadership of its recently-departed chief executive Robert Fornaro.

“The airline no longer takes its customers hostage, fights with them daily,” he said. “It was a cultural change to say the very least.”


Correction

An earlier version of this article misstated how Spirit Airlines would operate at the airport. The gate is used by Frontier and Air Canada, but Spirit is working with the airport to take it over.
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