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WhatsApp has Spirit for plane tickets, but it will cost you

Shawn M. Carter

Spirit Airlines, widely known as a low-budget carrier among travelers, has become renowned for breaking budgets with its add-on fees. Starting next week it will have a new high-tech offering that may make flying on the carrier easy -- but it will cost you.

The ultra-low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida, will allow passengers to book reservations and adjust their itineraries via text, using Facebook’s messaging service, WhatsApp starting Sept. 1 -- all for the additional fee of $25.

Brian Sumers, the senior aviation business editor at travel news and research website Skift, isn’t shocked by the texting fee: “I’m not surprised Spirit is charging for certain chat-based transactions,” he told Fox Business. “For years, airlines have wanted to get out of the business of having agents book travel for passengers. It’s expensive.”

In making the announcement Spirit said it was not about the expense but about the experience stating its customers "have told us they would rather communicate on a familiar and convenient service like WhatsApp,” said Bobby Schroeter, vice president of sales and marketing at Spirit, “It is all part of our goal to elevate and improve our Guest experience.”

The WhatsApp feature, which comes with the help of global-tech firm LiveStream, is two-tiered: It will connect customers with a chatbot, where they’ll provide basic information about their travel plans before being connected to a Spirit agent. Then, they’ll be sent a link that takes them outside of WhatsApp, where they will finalize their reservation.

“I see a couple of benefits,” Sumers said. “You won't have to wait on hold on the phone — discount airlines usually have lean operations, and sometimes it takes forever for an agent to answer.” Sumers added that "an airline agent can handle more than one chat conversation at once, which ultimately saves money for the airline. The passenger can also multi-task, too.”

If Spirit is introducing this service, could the major carriers such as Delta, United or American be far behind in offering "text-to-book" ?  “It's pretty clear that this is the future of customer service, both at airlines and other consumer-facing brands. I see more airlines going to chat in the future,” said Sumers, “Younger consumers often prefer it and airlines need to meet their customers where they are.”

Despite the add-on feel, the new service with its appeal to a younger flyer could be good for Spirit’s reputation. This spring Spirit was rated one of the worst U.S. airlines to fly with by Consumer Reports. The ranking considered things like check-in ease, comfort and cleanliness, staff service and Wi-Fi. Spirit does not offer in-flight Internet.

And those additional fees probably didn't help. Spirit flyers should know if you plan to bring a carry-on, bring some extra cash. If you get thirsty in-flight, pay up or be parched. Want to pick your own seat? That'll cost you.

Spirit is making strides toward improving customer experiences, though. Skift points to its recent investment in more comfortable seating as well as other tweaks to the cabin. The airline also plans to add Wi-Fi to its entire fleet by 2021. Of course, flyers will have to wait and see just how much these new amenities will cost

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