Spirit Airlines coming to RDU with flights to seven destinations

Spirit Airlines announced Tuesday that it would begin daily nonstop service from Raleigh-Durham International Airport in May.

The airline will fly to seven destinations: Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. All the flights start May 2.

In Chicago, Spirit will fly into O’Hare International, and in Orlando it will fly into Orlando International. The nonstop flights to BWI in Baltimore will be twice daily.

Spirit will become the 11th carrier to fly from RDU.

RDU has been wooing spirit airlines for five years, said Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO. Landguth said Spirit’s low fares and focus on leisure travelers will help expand the airport’s market and draw new customers, but said RDU had competition from other airports.

“They’re in high demand from a lot of communities,” Landguth said.

Five years is a pretty typical lead time for Spirit to enter a new market, said company spokesman Stephen Schuler, noting that the airline does extensive research.

“It really is a commitment when we start in a market like this, to put seven flights on a map,” Schuler said. “It shows there’s the evidence to support the need for low fares. There’s evidence that the market has a lot more room to grow and the economy is doing well.”

The announcement comes as RDU enjoys several years of almost uninterrupted passenger growth. About 12.8 million travelers passed through the airport last year, Landguth said, which was 1.2 million more than in 2017.

Airlines have been expanding service to tap in to growing demand and to spur more. Frontier Airlines, the low-cost carrier that accounted for a little more than 2 percent of passengers at RDU in 2017, announced new service to 18 destinations from the Triangle last year and another eight cities already this year. Frontier is by far the airport’s fastest growing airline.

Other airlines, including Air Canada, Allegiant, Delta and Southwest, have also announced nonstop flights to new destinations in recent months, while Delta and United have shifted some existing flights from small, regional carriers to bigger planes with more seats.

And last week, Via Airlines announced that it would begin service from RDU, with nonstop flights to Birmingham, Ala., starting in April.

Even with a half dozen budget airlines, Landguth doesn’t think any of them will be forced to leave the Triangle or cut back service significantly. Instead, he said, low fares will draw new travelers from throughout Eastern North Carolina.

“I think there’s plenty of opportunity for growth and drawing additional customers,” he said. “If they have options to drive, now they can look at flying to those destinations. I think we’re going to stimulate demand.”

Florida-based Spirit operates more than 600 daily flights to 72 destinations in the U.S., the Caribbean and Central and South America. In addition to low fares, the airline had a reputation as recently as two years ago for late arrivals and poor service, routinely landing at or near the bottom of U.S. Department of Transportation rankings.

But the airline made headlines last month when it topped all major U.S. carriers for on-time performance in October, bringing 89 percent of its flights in as scheduled, besting industry leaders Hawaiian and Delta, according to the USDOT. Other measures have improved as well, though the airline still ranks near the bottom in customer complaints, with 2.46 per 100,000 passengers or nearly 3 times the industry average.

Schuler said the airline has put all of its flight attendants through new customer service training to “change the tone,” and made technological and operating changes to improve its on-time performance.

“We invested in making sure that we were taking specific strategies at airports that could have more congestion time for turnaround,” he said. “And being super laser-focused on fixing the little problems.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739,