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Spirit Airlines' refusal to refund vet's ticket earns it an 'F' in Public Relations

Ever shake your head, ruefully, and wonder why those Occupy Wall Street rabble rousers despise corporations so virulently?

Here’s the answer: Spirit Airlines.

And here’s a better answer: Lawyers.

Spirit, of course, is the airline that has been blistered in the media for refusing a dying Vietnam veteran a $197 ticket refund, because his doctor forbade him to fly. The 76-year-old esophageal cancer sufferer, Jerry Meekins, bought a ticket on Spirit to fly from Clearwater, Fla. to visit his daughter in Atlantic City – perhaps for the last time.

But then his doctor nixed the trip. And Spirit nixed the refund.

After the turndown, Mr. Meekins went public with his plight. And Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza, like most CEOs, no doubt must have turned to his lawyers for benevolent counsel. The lawyers’must have offered the predictable advice: “Spirit has a non-refundable ticket policy. Refunding Mr. Meekins’ ticket would set a dangerous precedent. He should have bought flight insurance. He didn’t.” 

So.....

Ixnay on the efundray.

Equally predictably, Spirit’s callous, inflexible, “my way or the fly way” public response drew immediate public condemnation from just about everybody.

One airline watchdog group pointedly noted that Spirit is notoriously cheap and virtually “spiritless” when it comes to customer service.

“If someone is ill and they have a doctor’s note, airlines must refund their money,” said Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org.

Of course, there is one way around the Spirit ironclad policy for Mr. Meekins to get his refund: He can die. As Spirit’s website quaintly puts it, “Death before or during a scheduled flight may qualify someone for a partial refund.”

Short of that final solution, Spirit might consider one other option: the art of public relations.

Lawyers and public relations professionals often find themselves at loggerheads over the advice they proffer. While lawyers advise CEOs to take actions that ultimately protect the company in a court of law, public relations advisers recommend acting to protect the company in the court of public opinion.

And there’s a huge difference.

While Spirit’s lawyers appear to be worried about “precedent,” Spirit’s CEO ought to be more concerned about “reputation;” that is, the rapidly-deteriorating image of his airline, as it continues to endure a solid round of national media bashing for its heartlessness.

So what might a public relations counselor suggest to Mr. Baldanza to tamp down the merciless media spigot and keep America's journalists from nesting at his front porch door?

How ‘bout this idea: Why not offer Mr. Meekins’ daughter in Atlantic City a credit equivalent to the amount her father paid for the flight, so that she might fly Spirit Airlines down to Clearwater to see her ailing dad?

Even better would be a decision by Spirit to let Jerry Meekins’ daughter fly down to see her ailing dad for free – but that might send the lawyers into apoplexy.

Such a compassionate resolution, of course, might, indeed, be (heaven forefend) “precedent setting.” Still, it’s a much better outcome for the family and the company than the daily public  pounding that the airline is absorbing as a result of its ruthless, cold-blooded, short-sighted policy.

Somewhere, the father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays, is rolling in his grave.

Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and "Idea Wise."