Spirit Airlines seeks more gates at Hartsfield-Jackson

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Spirit Airlines is seeking more gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the carrier rebounds from the pandemic and looks to expand in the future.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday relaxed its guidance for travel, saying fully vaccinated people can start traveling again “at low risk to themselves.”

Spirit, an ultra low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida, is the third-largest airline at Hartsfield-Jackson, behind Delta with more than three quarters of the market and Southwest at about 11%. Spirit makes up about 3% of the total passenger traffic at the Atlanta airport.

Spirit’s operations have rebounded from the effects of COVID-19 to more than 20 flights a day to about 16 destinations, including Newark, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans and Los Angeles. That flight count is roughly on par with pre-pandemic levels, and Spirit is “looking for ways to grow beyond that,” said CEO Ted Christie.

Planes are still not as full as they were before the pandemic, but the airline’s ultra low-cost model targets discount-seeking vacationers, similar to the demographic leading the recovery in travel so far. Spirit touts low fares, but charges extra for both carry-on and checked bags. as well as in-flight beverages and snacks.

“We are a leisure-based airline. ... Leisure is the fundamental, core traffic today,” Christie said in an interview.

Business travel and long overseas flights to places like Europe and Asia, which are core profit drivers for major carriers like Delta Air Lines, are expected to take much longer to recover.

Spirit currently uses a mix of gates across multiple concourses, including two “preferential use” gates on Concourse D and periodic use of seven to eight common-use gates on Concourse E for other flights.

“It can create some logistical issues,” Christie said. “We are very interested” in more preferential use gates

The airline has been in discussions with airport officials. “We’re really excited to continue to grow,” he said.

Hartsfield-Jackson said it has no available preferential gates right now, but it is adding five gates to Concourse T by December 2022. That will allow United and American to move flights to those gates, opening up several gates on Concourse D. It’s yet to be seen whether those gates will be designated for a particular airline or open to any airline as common-use gates.

Airport officials say steep international flight reductions amid the pandemic have reduced use of common-use gates on international Concourses E and F. If international flights don’t recover, the airport could use some of those gates for more domestic flights. However, international operations take precedence over domestic operations, the airport said.

Spirit is also rolling out facial recognition technology to match customers’ faces to photo IDs they scan at baggage self drop stations. It has rolled out a test of the technology at Chicago O’Hare and New York’s LaGuardia Airport that’s under evaluation by the Transportation Security Administration. The technology likely will be added at Hartsfield-Jackson at the end of this year or early next year.