It was supposed to be a festive celebration at Philadelphia International Airport's Terminal A East on Thursday, with greetings from Mayor Nutter, an Elvis impersonator, and cowboy hats for everyone as Spirit Airlines began nonstop service to Dallas-Fort Worth.
It didn't quite turn out that way, though, because of Federal Aviation Administration paperwork.
Chalk it up to the federal budget sequester?
Spirit, known for its low fares and add-on fees for such things as carry-on baggage, has been around for 25 years, and it has inaugurated service at dozens of airports. Until now, it has never had a problem getting FAA approval on time.
But Thursday, despite Spirit's following the same procedures, FAA authorization for its new daily service to Dallas - and to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on April 25, and Las Vegas on April 26 - did not come through.
Spirit was forced to cancel its inaugural flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Philadelphia. The 78 Dallas passengers flew instead to Atlantic City, then were bused to Philadelphia. The 128 Dallas-bound passengers were rebooked on other airlines. Spirit refunded all passengers for their tickets; they flew for free.
Spirit did not criticize the FAA but acknowledged that the only difference now is the federal spending cuts that began March 1.
The FAA has announced the closing of 149 air-traffic control towers in small airports and furloughs of 47,000 employees beginning later this month. The agency will lose $637 million in government funding through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
"We followed our normal process, which was to submit our application to fly, through the regulatory folks at the FAA within the appropriate time," said Spirit chief operating officer Tony Lefebvre. "Normally, we get expeditious approval and have no issues.
"We were advised late last night [Wednesday] that they still had more work to do, and advised again this morning [Thursday] that there was some more work to do," Lefebvre said.
Miramar, Fla.-based Spirit works with the FAA certificate-management office in South Florida.
"Before starting new service at an airport, every air carrier must demonstrate to the FAA that safety procedures are in place for handling aircraft on the ground," the FAA said in a statement Thursday. "As soon as the agency determines that the procedures are acceptable, the FAA allows the carrier to operate at the airport."
Spirit plans for the Philadelphia-Dallas flight to operate Friday.
The airline now flies from Atlantic City International Airport to four Florida cities and Myrtle Beach year-round, and to Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and West Palm Beach from April to November.
"Other than Spirit, there is no other airline that is truly a no-frills, low-cost airline," said George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com. "Spirit charges for everything - seat assignments, drinks, a bottle of water. The only thing they don't charge for is the oxygen and the bathrooms."
Last year, Spirit began charging $100 for a last-minute carry-on bag checked at the gate. The fee for carry-ons is $35 if booked during an online reservation, and $50 paid for at the airport ticket counter.
"Even with the fees, their fares are lower than other airlines," Hobica said. "Spirit tends to put downward pressure on the other airlines. You'll see fares to Dallas go down. You'll see fares to Las Vegas go down."
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