Spirit Airlines Might Have Become a Delta Feeder Airline If it Settled For a Merger With Comair

Photo: Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines Was Almost Swallowed By Comair Back In the ’90s.

Now one of the most popular ultra-low cost carriers for domestic (and some international) travel, Spirit Airlines was once on the brink of becoming extinct.  It almost fell into the hands of the now-defunct commuter carrier Comair!

So, how’d it all go down?

Spirit Airlines was originally a tour operator, Charter One, which provided hired turboprop aircraft for those looking to travel between Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Providence, to Atlantic City (primarily for gambling trips). This would eventually lead to similar chartered trips to southern destinations, and also international ones, such as the Bahamas.

However, Charter One would soon begin leasing its own planes, and, as it began to establish a fleet, it launched daily services in the early 90s as the newly named Spirit Airlines. Early growth was substantial, with $56 million in sales in 1994.

Vintage Spirit livery. Photo: wikipedia Anthony92931

It was only a few years later, though, when Spirit Airlines, already known for its low-cost fares, would start encountering some challenges, which made it a takeover target. One of these challenges was the difficulty found in creating hubs, with major airlines squeezing out the low-cost carriers of the day. Additionally, ValuJet’s flight 592 crash in 1996, was devastating to all low-cost carriers who faced additional scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Comair Holdings, Inc., which had been established nearly 20 years earlier in Cincinnati, was experiencing some success due to a partnership with Delta Air Lines, which had allowed the carrier to triple its business and expand its routes, into Canada and the Caribbean, as well as increase its fleet substantially. In 1994, it also had just leased a brand-new, $50 million terminal. They were looking to expand quickly but needed to find labor to fill the rapid growth.

Comair announces plans to buy Spirit Airlines

In 1996, Comair announced its plans to buy Spirit Airlines for approximately $20 million, a deal that had been in the works for about two years. The agreement would have had benefits for both sides, as Comair would gain opportunities with Spirit’s low-cost labor base, and Spirit would have a bigger name to help it hold its own against the country’s major airlines.

However, the ValuJet crash threw these well crafted plans into disarray. Comair would back out of the deal just months later. At the time, it seemed like the right call.  Comair’s profits would continue to climb throughout the 1990s. Even a crash of one of their CRJs in 1997 did not interrupt their climb.

Tougher times were ahead for Comair though in 2000. Comair’s partnership with Delta was expiring, and the new offer on the table was less lucrative.  Comair had three options — agree to a less-than-favorable new partnership, decline Delta’s offer and go on their own, or allow Delta to purchase Comair outright. Faced with falling stock prices, they agreed to be acquired by Delta in 2000. Comair became part of Delta Connection, Inc.

A ComAir CRJ-100 parked at Jacksonville International Airport.  By David Mueller – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1113347

Comair did retain its name for a while within the Delta network. In 2012, Delta announced that Comair would cease all operations.  Delta Connection flying was transferred to other partners.

It all worked out after all…

Spirit Airlines, however, did not allow the ValuJet crash or the failed Comair deal to stand in its way.  The airline launched a marketing campaign the same year to highlight its perfect safety record. In the following years, as other low-cost carriers dissolved or abandoned routes, Spirit stepped in to fill the gaps, to much success. They focused on underserved markets and right sized the amount of flying to match demand.  Already known as a low-cost carrier, Spirit would transition to an ultra-low cost carrier in the mid-2000s, charging for carryons, beverages, and even printed tickets.

Though the airline has endured strikes and its fair share of negative publicity issues since, Spirit continues to enjoy success in a very competitive landscape.  Today, Spirit Airlines serves more than 50 destinations with more than 100 Airbus aircraft.