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Spirit Airlines' boss calls industry-high complaint rate 'irrelevant,' says dying veteran should've bought insurance

The boss of Spirit Airlines isn't about to cave in to a dying former Marine, and he doesn't lose sleep knowing his company leads the industry when it comes to customer complaints, he told FoxNews.com.

“That’s an irrelevant statistic,” Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said when told his airline generates gripes at two-and-a-half times the rate of the next most complained about carrier.

Spirit racked up 8.27 complaints per 100,000 passengers in January, while United finished a distant second-worst, registering 3.5 complaints per 100,000 fliers, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. By comparison, Southwest notched just 0.2 complaints per 100,000 fliers.

Spirit is generating complaints at a much faster clip on Facebook, where a "Boycott Spirit Airlines" page has seen its number of "likes" soar to more than 21,000 from about 700 since the carrier denied a $197 refund to Jerry Meekins. The 76-year-old Vietnam veteran and former Marine tried to get his $197 back after learning his esophageal cancer is terminal and being told by his doctor not to fly from Florida to Atlantic City. Airline officials told him to forget it, and Baldanza reaffirmed the company's hardline in an exclusive FoxNews.com interview.

“A lot of our customers buy that insurance and what Mr. Meekins asked us to do was essentially give him the benefit of that insurance when he didn’t purchase the insurance,” Baldanza said. “Had we done that, I think it really would’ve been cheating all the people who actually bought the insurance … and I think that’s fundamentally unfair.”

Baldanza likened the situation to a homeowner with no policy calling up an an insurance company after his house burns down.

“We feel very badly for Mr. Meekins, however, this is a country and society where we kind of play by the rules,” he said. “And he wanted to really not do that and that’s really not fair to the 10 million other Spirit customers and that’s why we made that decision.”

As for the industry-leading rate of complaints per 100,000, Baldanza said it doesn't bother him.

“If you ran a restaurant, and out of every 100,000 customers, 8 of them said they didn’t like your menu, would you change your restaurant?" he asked. “Why don’t we interpret that 99.92 of all customers have no complaints? Because that is what it says."

Kate Hanni, executive director of Flyers Rights, which bills itself as the largest nonprofit consumer organization representing U.S. airline passengers, said Spirit doesn't seem to care what customers think.

“They’re the worst airline in the U.S.,” Hanni said. “They put no money back into customer service, which is a black hole at Spirit.”

Hanni estimated that her organization receives five times the amount of complaints pertaining to Spirit than any other domestic airline — budget or legacy carrier alike.

“Spirit Airlines has a history of cruelty toward their passengers, but they continue to treat them like meat in a seat because their fares are so low they are confident people will continue to fly with them,” she continued. “But the fact is people are damaged by Spirit every day and Spirit Airlines just has a culture of ‘I don’t care.’”

In Meekins' case, FoxNews.com readers overwhelmingly believe the boss got it wrong: In a "You Decide" poll with more than 100,000 responses, 8 out of 10 readers said Spirit should have refunded Meekins' fare.

Baldanza, 50, has staked his company's model for success on "unbundling" services. Customers pay extra for each additional service or amenity, including a new policy unveiled this week in which they will pay $100 for carry-on bags that go in overhead bins.  

"Carrying more than one bag is not necessary for all travelers and we believe it is unfair to charge those customers for extra services they do not use -- indeed, it is the basis for Spirit's policy to unbundle services not essential to passenger transport," Baldanza told a Congressional panel in 2010.

The Miramar, Fla.-based carrier was fined $100,000 in 2010 by the federal Department of Transportation for not recording and responding to the complaints regarding the treatment of disabled passengers. In 2009, Spirit paid a $215,000 fine after the Department of Transportation penalized it for the way it bumped passengers from oversold flights and handled lost or damaged baggage.

In 2007, Baldanza laid bare his feelings about customer service in an email which he meant to send to a colleague, but accidentally hit reply all, sending the missive out to the very passenger who had complained. 

“Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned," the email read. "Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown before with us anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

Spirit reported a first-quarter profit of $23.4 million, compared to $7.9 million a year earlier. The budget carrier has recently expanded routes in cities like Dallas, Chicago and Denver. The airline's all-Airbus fleet currently operates more than 190 daily flights to more than 50 destinations within the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. Baldanza told reporters on an earnings call this week the carrier’s average fare fell during the first quarter by nearly 7 percent to $76.65.

Asked by a reporter last month from FlightGlobal.com if the airline’s additional domestic routes versus international locales are a sign of what’s to come, Baldanza replied: “Our strategy is simpler than that. Our strategy is to make money.”

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