Posted May 3, 2012 12:09 pm by with 0 comments

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Spirit Airlines is in the midst of what could only be described as a reputation dumpster fire.

Here is the quick back story. A Vietnam war veteran, Jerry Meekins, purchased a ticket on the airline to go to Florida to help his daughter out after a surgical procedure she was having. He purchased the ticket to make the trip. Mr. Meekins has battled esophageal cancer for two years (he is 76 years old). In between the time he purchased the ticket and the actual flight date he was told by his doctors that the cancer was now terminal and that he should not fly.

As a result, Mr. Meekins asked for a refund of the $197 fare from Spirit Airlines. In order to adhere to an apparently very strict “no refund” policy the airline has said no to the request. Well, what has happened since has created a reputation storm for Spirit that will likely cost them a lot more the $197.

Mashable reports

The “Boycott Spirit Airlines” Facebook Page, which had about 700 likes earlier in the week, has more than 18,000 likes as of Thursday morning, Fox News reports. The page was initially started in 2010 when the airline announced it would begin charging for checked luggage.

Much of the backlash on Facebook against Spirit Airlines is coming from current military members and veterans.

“I believe Spirit Airlines owes a debt to the Veteran and an apology. Being a good corporate citizen seems not to be in their culture. I will not fly them because of this. I am a proud U.S. Navy Veteran,” wrote one Facebook commenter, Robert Twigg.

Upon visiting the Facebook page (which had over 19,500 Likes when I was there) you can see that this has gone very mainstream. Posts include links to stories by Fox news, Huffington Post, MSNBC. The Fox News report is an interview with the veteran and it’s worth the 5 minutes to watch because it’s obvious he’s not looking for much and that this gotten a life of its own via social media and the online space.

Now, we realize that these stories get spun hard but that’s why they become so powerful. What comes into question is the policy that Spirit Airlines has about no refunds and their response that they get similar request all the time and give no refunds. Similar? Really? This kind of timing and what seems to be a reasonable request from a dying man? It just looks very bad for the airline.

Imagine this. If they had refunded the $197 what might the outcome have been? Here’s my guess. A happy war veteran who goes about his business, tells a few friends and they think it’s nice and there is no ripple effect. This is great example of how far bad reviews can travel in a relatively short period of time. Would Spirit have received kudos for doing the right thing if they had just refunded the money? Not likely but that should be fine for them especially in light of the trouble they have now created for themselves.

This is a prime example of the quandary that many businesses find themselves in the age of the Internet and the desire by many to right the wrongs that ordinary people can suffer at the hands of a company. I really don’t think that Spirit intends to come off as cold-hearted. They are just trying to keep from creating a flood of people trying to game them for refunds (that’s my guess at least).

But as Mr. Meekins puts it, he would like to see the company have a review of each case so that the individual merits of the request could be considered rather than falling under a blanket policy. The trouble with that is that while it sounds good is it something the airline could actually do in a reasonable manner? No matter what the business difficulties are though Spirit Airlines has created a very toxic environment for their brand and whatever their concerns are, the average person will not care one bit, no matter how real they are.

This needs to be a lesson to companies which is unfortunately being learned over and over again despite history to show that such moves can snowball quickly and turn into true disasters rather than just be a small inconvenience to a company. Spirit Airlines’ hardline adherence to the spirit of the letter of their corporate law has now created an image that will be hard to shake. And for what? 197 bucks? Wow.

What’s your take on this whole scene? How does this incident impact your view of Spirit Airlines? What can they do to make this better at this point? Let’s hear your voice in the comments.