Spirit Airlines’ “Day of Freedom to Travel” program offered every seat on every flight on Sept. 11, 2002 for free. This successful program garnered increased consumer awareness, major media coverage and customer loyalty all on a budget of just $330. The program highlights included: more than one million people jammed Spirit’s website and phone lines to get free seats and within eight hours every seat on every plane was taken; Bennett & Company generated more than $10 million in positive 1:1 advertising value resulting from a total investment of $330 in just six weeks (Aug. 6 – Sept. 17); Spirit Airlines gained increased customer loyalty and achieved their desired result: to get as many Americans into the air on Sept. 11, 2002 as possible as a statement of defiance against terrorism and pride for our country; americans nationwide were not only able to travel at no cost but, more importantly, were able to take positive action on a day that might otherwise have gone by marked only with grief and fear.
Approaching the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some major airlines had already announced the decision to cut back on flights, especially from airports that had been originally impacted. And the travel news media compounded the issue by warning that “fare sales” would be in poor taste and that people may not want to fly that day out of reverence for the anniversary. These factors in combination with the overall industry slump created a huge challenge.
Spirit Airlines conquered that challenge when developing the “Day of Freedom to Travel” program in early August 2002. The country’s largest privately-held airline, ranked number 13 nationwide, Spirit was already a rare “good news” story in the industry, bucking the gloom and doom trend by seeing modest profits every quarter since the attacks. With 90 daily flights on 30 aircraft to 14 destinations throughout the country, Spirit’s passengers remained loyal to the low-fare carrier over the past year, keeping the airline in the black.
Spirit’s CEO, Jacob Schorr, decided to thank his customers in a way that would not only reward their loyalty, but celebrate America’s freedom to travel by sending a message that Americans are not afraid to fly. Every seat on every flight on Sept. 11, 2002 would be free. The objective: give away 13,400 seats on a first-come, first-served basis. No strings attached.
Schorr hoped that the offer would “show that we’re not a nation than can easily be brought down” and wanted to “personally encourage the public to travel on 9/11 and exercise our freedom as Americans.”
Aware of the fact that advertising was not the appropriate vehicle for their message, Spirit turned to public relations to carry the message that, effective 8:00 a.m. on Aug. 7, travelers could book free travel on Sept. 11 via Spirit’s reservation network, their website or travel agents.
Faced with almost no budget and knowing that the story would have more impact if it broke on a national television broadcast prior to issuing a news release, Bennett & Company turned to international travel industry expert and agency friend, Peter Greenberg.
On August 6, 5:20 p.m. EST - Greenberg appeared on CNBC news noting that while other airlines were cutting back on 9/11, Spirit would operate its entire schedule with all seats free. The phones began ringing immediately: consumers, hoping to beat the crowd and media, intrigued with the offer. A news release announcing the “Day of Freedom to Travel” offer was sent immediately following the broadcast.
On August 7, 4:00 p.m. EST more than a million consumers had jammed Spirit’s phone lines and website vying for the 13,400 seats and thousands of consumers sent congratulatory e-mails to Spirit for their patriotic offer.
On August 7, 5:00 p.m. EST a second news release was distributed announcing that all seats had been reserved.
On August 8, 9:00 a.m. EST a third release was sent releasing results of the offer. In addition, it was announced that members of Spirit’s management team would be at every Spirit-served airport on 9/11 to personally thank Spirit passengers and distribute American flag lapel pins.
With only three one-page news releases at a total cost of $330 and a well placed exclusive, Spirit’s message received major coverage including: more than 550 print stories, including coverage in each of the top ten daily newspapers with four consecutive stories in USA Today; more than 1,000 broadcast stories including the Today Show, every major TV network, CNN and others; print and broadcast stories in more than 18 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Thailand, China, Singapore, Japan, France, Germany and Iraq; wire service reports including Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News Service, United Press International, Agence France Presse and the Iraq News Service.
This overwhelmingly successful program brought Spirit Airlines everything they had hoped for: great consumer response (13,400 seats booked in less than eight hours), immense media coverage (more than $10 million in positive advertising value in six weeks) and the opportunity to help all Americans take one small step in the healing process.