The Haunting of Spirit Airlines

The airline is learning the hard way about how the “cognitive scars” created by poor customer experiences can haunt a brand for years to come.


This summer, Spirit Airlines struggled with major operational issues that led to the cancellations of thousands of flights impacting tens of thousands of summer vacationers.  Unfortunately for the airline, many of those passengers will likely have long memories of their experience.

In explaining their recent problems, Spirit contends that they fell victim to something of a perfect storm – the collective effect of bad weather, staffing shortages, and technology problems. Turns out that their customers were also impacted by something of a perfect storm – one that sears certain types of memories into our heads for years to come.

As I explain in my new book, FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans, cultivating loyalty with customers is largely an exercise in memory-shaping. What really governs consumer behavior (i.e., the likelihood that we’ll patronize a business again, or recommend it to others) isn’t the experience we have with the organization, but rather, how we remember it. And, given how our brains process our experiences, those two things are often not the same.

There are science-based reasons why we remember some experiences better than others, and some parts of an experience better than other parts. There are heuristics and cues that serve to cement certain memories in our mind. And while those memories may differ in their emotional valence (positive or negative), what they have in common is that they all influence our behavior in the future.

There are a number of reasons why passengers’ recent unfavorable experiences with Spirit might stick with them for a while, instead of melting away as most of our memories of day-to-day business interactions do:

  • The disruption was emotionally-charged. Spirit’s target market is leisure travelers. The affected passengers weren’t business travelers, accustomed to periodic flight snafus that might occasionally necessitate adding a day to one’s trip (on your employer’s dime). No, these were vacationers (many probably venturing out for their first long-awaited, post-Covid excursion) whose plans for enjoying some sun and surf were suddenly upended. As such, these flight cancellations were emotionally-charged, as the vacations people had saved months if not years for were now severely disrupted. Emotion is a memory cue, and so the presence of intense emotion will etch the memory of these awful Spirit travel experiences into passenger’s minds.
  • The flight cancellations were surprising. Even Spirit has acknowledged that many of these schedule disruptions were due to factors other than bad weather. If you’re at the airport, waiting for your flight to leave, and a huge band of thunderstorms comes through the area – delays and cancellations may ensue, and passengers will be upset, but they probably won’t be terribly surprised. It was a very different scenario for Spirit customers this summer, many of whose flights were cancelled even though there were no visible weather issues. That creates an element of surprise when a flight is canceled, and surprise is – you guessed it – a memory cue. When we encounter something unexpected, neurotransmitters in our brain activate in a unique way, forming long-term memories of the experience.
  • For some, this travel nightmare came at the end of their vacation. Travelers who got caught up in Spirit’s problems as they embarked on their long-anticipated vacations obviously had a very emotionally-charged response to the situation. However, there were likely many travelers who were affected by the cancellation on the return trip back home. While these folks got to enjoy the vacations they had long planned, the tail-end disruption of their trips invoked a different type of memory cue, one that centers around “recency bias.” It’s a fancy term that basically just means this: We tend to remember the stuff that happens to us at the end of an experience better than that at the beginning. And, so, when your vacation concludes with an air travel nightmare, it’s that nightmare that will exert a disproportionate influence on your memory of the entire trip.

For all these reasons, passengers affected by Spirit’s recent operational struggles will carry that memory with them for some time. When they’re ready to book tickets for their next vacation, their experience from this summer will likely influence their choice of air carrier. In addition, when a friend, family member, or colleague mentions Spirit to them in the future, it’s these hellish travel stories that they’ll likely tell in response.

This is how long-term impressions are formed about brands, and those impressions exert an undeniable influence on people’s purchase, repurchase, and referral behaviors. (In the airline industry, specifically, there’s clear evidence to back this up from Watermark Consulting’s Airline Customer Experience ROI Study. That analysis of stock returns vividly illustrated how air carriers with a great customer experience far outperform those with a poor one.)

What could Spirit have done differently to shape more positive memories during this period (or at least less viscerally negative ones)? Ideally, when their schedule began to crumble, they should have considered how to “overcorrect” on the recovery – engineering the resolution experience to be so good, so polished, that the memory of the recovery itself would actually eclipse that of the cancellation.

The airline’s ability to do that, however, was constrained by a number of factors, such as the fact that Spirit has no reciprocal agreement with other airlines to re-accommodate one another’s passengers in the event of cancellations. (Many of the larger, legacy airlines have such agreements in place, which helps mitigate the impact of cancellations on passengers.) The ripple effect of cancellations is also more severe at Spirit, given that the carrier offers a very limited number of daily flights between its served cities (which further limits passengers’ re-booking options).

Spirit’s best bet was to get through the operational strife and then engage affected passengers with some type of memorable gesture that could perhaps overcome the cognitive scars they sustained from the disruption (for example, a well-crafted communication accompanied by a partial refund or a generous travel voucher).

Sure, there would have been a cost associated with such a gesture – but if it helped salvage the airline’s reputation, if it shifted the watercooler talk from “how Spirit wronged me” to “how Spirit recovered for me,” if it led affected passengers to at least consider flying the airline again – then it would have been money well spent.

Because if the airline did nothing to shape the perceptions and memories of these inconvenienced fliers, then Spirit might find that it’s not just their planes that were getting grounded — but also their growth prospects.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed public speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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