Active-duty members traveling on Spirit Airlines will no longer have to pay baggage fees on up to two checked bags and one free carry-on, officials said.

The new policy, which is in line with other airlines' policies regarding baggage fees for military personnel, is effective Feb. 19. Spirit will also offer refunds at its ticket counters for any active-duty military member who has already purchased bags for an upcoming trip. "This is the right thing to do and the right time to implement this change," said Robert Fornaro, Spirit Airlines' president and chief executive officer.

"After eight years of impressive growth as an ultra-low cost carrier, this is the first of many steps Spirit is taking to improve the overall customer experience," Fornaro said.

The change comes a day after the Department of Transportation released its annual report on airline complaints, which showed that Spirit has the highest rate of customer complaints among 13 U.S. airlines, as well as the highest percentage of regularly scheduled flights that are late 70 percent or more of the time. Spirit had 11.73 complaints per 100,000 customers in 2015. The next highest was Frontier Airlines with 7.86 per 100,000. And 1.4 percent of Spirit's regularly scheduled flights were chronically late, nearly twice as high as the next airline, Skywest, with 0.8 percent.

Last year was the first year the Department of Transportation included Spirit in its complaint reporting. Spirit Airlines operated as a more conventional airline until 2007, when it changed to a self-described "ultra-low cost carrier."

That model of operation tends to lend itself to complaints, said Spirit Airlines spokesman Paul Berry. With this model, passengers pay only for what they want to use. Basic fares are about $35, he said, but passengers pay for everything else such as water, coffee, checked bags, carry-on bags. "Customers shouldn't have to pay for it in a bundle if they don't want it," he said. They still save about 30 percent on average, compared to other airlines, he said.

The complaints are received mostly from customers who are first-time flyers with the airline, and don't make their purchase on, which informs them about the procedures, but through another source. Others have experienced problems when the airline had operational issues, for example, because of the weather. Because the fleet includes only 79 airplanes, the planes only fly one or two times a day on all the routes, so there's little ability to reschedule flights quickly. Spirit is gradually adding more airplanes and constantly adding more routes.

As more people have flown the airline and become familiar with the model of operation, the volume of complaints has gone down, Berry said. The new CEO is redoubling efforts to educate people about Spirit's policies, Berry said, and complaints are expected to decrease further in 2016.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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