Rachael Barach and her fiancé spent months planning their dream wedding: a small ceremony on the remote Caribbean Island of Jost Van Dyke. Pulling it off would require some effort: flying from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas, then taking a ferry over to Jost Van Dyke; hiring a wedding photographer, a captain, and a six-foot sailboat; arranging international paperwork; renting hotel rooms; and bringing over days' worth of provisions, decorations, and champagne.
The couple plus seven of their friends spent thousands of dollars to put the plan into action. On Thursday, March 22, the bride and groom and five others in their party caught a Spirit Airlines flight to St. Thomas. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday, March 25, and the group planned to fly back Monday so everyone could be back at work on Tuesday.
But, says the bride, "It basically turned into a big disaster."
A wrench landed firmly in the plans on Friday, when guests received notification via email and text that Monday's return flight would be canceled due to mechanical issues. They had a choice: return a day early (Sunday) or a day late (Tuesday).
After much hand-wringing and many international phone calls to Spirit with no happy resolution, the bride says they made the tough decision to cancel the wedding in order to catch the Sunday flight. "We did have to go back a day early because we had work obligations" and could not miss work on Tuesday. She says they tried to get Spirit to refund their money so they could put the funds toward a Monday flight on another airline, but Spirit refused.
Barach's wedding guest, Paula Ettline, says there were other people on the return flight who had also had their trips cut short. "There were people on that plane cussing Spirit up one side and down the other."
They had to forfeit the Sunday-night hotel rooms and wasted tons of food and drinks. "We're out a lot of money," Barach says. But her main gripe, she says, is that "I feel that we were lied to." She said that the flight to St. Thomas had been relatively empty -- her guest Brian Prendergast estimated there were "no more 30 people on a flight that I would say seats 130" -- and the party suspects the Monday flight was canceled not because of mechanical problems but because it was undersold. How would an airline know on a Friday that a plane would have a maintenance issue on Monday? And with that amount of advance notice, why couldn't they get another plane in place?
She feels the company is guilty of breach of contract but says that she does not intend to fight it in court, as she would rather put the incident behind her. "I will never fly them again," she says. "Other airlines would have bent over backwards to save the day."
A Spirit airlines spokeswoman declined to comment, saying she was trying to resolve the matter with the customers. The customers said that Spirit's final offer was a $50 voucher toward a future flight. When they rejected it, they received email correspondence from "Tracey 63716" in the Corporate Customer Relations department, who wrote, "Although I empathize with your circumstances, I must uphold our policy. I know that you will disagree with our position; however, the compensation we offered is what is our standard compensation. We understand you may disagree with our policies and procedures. However, Spirit Airlines has found that by being consistent with our policies and procedures is the only way to offer all of our customers with an equal and fair service.
As I had previously informed you, the flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues." When pressed, she refused to specify what the mechanical reasons were.
Airline industry expert Patrick Smith, who writes the column "Ask the Pilot" for Salon.com, says "Spirit is what it is -- a low-cost carrier."
He says that it is "not typical" for an airline to declare a maintenance problem three days prior to a scheduled flight, but "for whatever reason, the plane was going to be taken out of service and the company needed to make adjustments to its schedule. It sounds like they went out of their way to be proactive about the schedule change [by notifying the fliers on Friday].
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"Airlines don't just have extra planes lying around. It costs tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to operate an airline, and it's really important to keep planes in revenue service all the time."
He continued: "The word maintenance can mean all sorts of different things. Whether for maintenance or a logistical reason, the problem was probably a lot more complicated than the customers realized. Was it inconvenient? Yes." He said that the fine print when the ticket was purchased probably stipulated that the airline could change or cancel the flight. "What's legal here and what's ideal customer service are two different things."
As for Barach and her fiancé, they got married by a notary upon their return to Fort Lauderdale and intend to take a European honeymoon later.