Who loses if JetBlue buys Spirit? Comedians

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Travelers check in for a Spirit Airlines flight at Orlando International Airport on the Friday before Memorial Day.
Paul Hennessy | Lightrocket | Getty Images

JetBlue‘s surprise $3.6 billion cash bid for Spirit is threatening the latter’s plan to merge with Frontier into a discount airline behemoth. It’s also threatening one of comedians’ favorite sources of material.

“It’s kind of a bummer for me. If there’s no Spirit anymore who are we going to make fun of?” Jimmy Kimmel quipped Wednesday in his “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” monologue. “Look out, Allegiant. You’re on deck.”

New York-based JetBlue wants to absorb Florida-headquartered Spirit and change Spirit’s bright-yellow planes, which feature seats that don’t recline, to match JetBlue’s jets, which offer roomier seating, seatback screens and free snacks.

Spirit’s rock-bottom airfare and fees for everything including seat selection and carry-on bags have provided comedians with years of fodder and become a go-to reference for the indignities of air travel. Major airlines have taken a cue from discounters with basic economy fares, which don’t include advance seat selection and force passengers to board last.

Spirit accounted for just under 5% of passengers carried by U.S. airlines last year. Yet it was mentioned 40 times on late-night talk shows in 2021, representing 20% of total airline mentions on those programs, according to an analysis conducted for the airline, which was seen by CNBC.

Kimmel said Wednesday that JetBlue wants to buy Spirit for $3.6 billion “plus $55 extra for carry-on luggage.”

“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon also cited JetBlue’s offer in Wednesday monologue. “Right now Spirit is like, ‘Guys, we better open a bank account. I think it’s time.'”

‘You have to have thick skin’

No airline has gone unscathed from late-night shows’ spotlight. Spirit’s analysis showed American had 77 mentions last year, while Southwest had 50 and Delta had 34. There are also countless standup clips and memes poking fun at airlines and air travel.

“Every airline has a story at some point that becomes a joke on some show,” said Ross Feinstein, a former spokesperson for American Airlines and for the Transportation Security Administration. “You have to have thick skin to work in the airline industry.”

After reports that a man was kicked off a JetBlue flight for trying to bring a possum on board in late 2019, co-host of “Saturday Night Live” star Colin Jost said on the “Weekend Update” segment: “while at Spirit Airlines that’s what falls down when you need an oxygen mask.”

Spirit said that “contrary to the late-night narrative our airline is focused on providing Guests with an excellent experience, with affordable fares that allow them to venture further and discover more than ever before.”

It said it has reached out to shows before and hasn’t had any luck with a response.

Spirit said it understood airlines are a target “because the air-travel-related jokes consistently get laughs” and added: “We promise possums never popped out of the bulkhead.”

Spirit has made strides in improving punctuality in recent years and came in sixth among U.S. airlines last year, above JetBlue’s ninth place, according to Transportation Department data. The rate of complaints also fell in the years before the pandemic. It enrolled staff at the Disney Institute to improve customer service.

In 2019, Spirit unveiled new curved seats that it says were designed to give passengers more personal space, but still didn’t escape ridicule from late-night hosts.

“Congratulations, Spirit. We diss them a lot on the show, but this is a big improvement over their old seats, which were just a dirty couch they found on the street,” said Trevor Noah on a December 2019 episode of “The Daily Show.”

Representatives for Kimmel, Fallon, Noah and “Saturday Night Live” didn’t immediately respond for comment.

Pandemic problems

The pandemic hasn’t been easy. Staffing shortages and technical problems forced Spirit to cancel more than 2,800 flights in late July and early August 2021, a debacle that cost it some $50 million. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines faced similar issues in the fall.

The problems drove up passenger complaints about Spirit to the Transportation Department to 11.45 per 100,000 passengers, the most of the U.S. airlines, while DOT logged 6.38 about JetBlue and 5.78 about Frontier.

Spirit said it’s evaluating JetBlue’s “unsolicited” offer. A deal, just like the planned merger of Frontier and Spirit, would have to pass muster with regulators at a time when President Joe Biden has tasked his administration with scrutinizing competition. Frontier and Spirit earlier this year said they haven’t decided which airline’s branding would last.

That still hasn’t stopped comedians from taking digs at Spirit.

JetBlue has “a real bathroom instead of a bucket that everyone is passing around,” Kimmel said Wednesday.

Spirit told CNBC that it welcomes any late-night hosts and their families to fly the airline.

“The Roots might even be inclined to write a love song about us after they fly Spirit!” the airline wrote, referring to the house band for “The Tonight Show.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal airs “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Saturday Night Live.”

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