Spirit Airlines has announced today that Robert L. Fornaro has been appointed as President and Chief Executive Officer, effective immediately. Fornaro comes to succeed Ben Baldanza, who joined Spirit in 2005 as Chief Operating Officer and served as President and CEO since 2006.
In a press statement, Baldanza thanked Spirit’s management team members “for their support and efforts in making Spirit the success that it is today. I am focused on supporting a seamless transition and wish the Company and Bob continued success in the future.” Baldanza also praised Fornaro’s leadership, which considers as “the right choice to lead the company through its next phase of growth.”
Fornaro has been a Spirit board member since May 2014, and previously served as the CEO of AirTran Holdings Inc and a consultant for various airlines. “Bob’s deep knowledge of Spirit and his background, skills and operational expertise give the Board full confidence that he is the right leader to deliver on the next phase of Spirit Airlines’ growth story” said H. McIntyre Gardner, Spirit’s non-executive chairman.
During Baldanza’s tenure, the airline experienced a transition into a highly successful ultra low-cost business model pioneered by Ryanair in Europe, by bringing the model to the South Florida – Latin America market. In five years, the airline had a swift international expansion to key regional markets such as Colombia, Panama and Peru, and standardized its fleet around the Airbus A320 family aircraft.
“Ben was instrumental in transitioning Spirit into a highly successful ultra low-cost carrier, a significant achievement in the airline industry, which benefited our employees and customers,” added Gardner.
“I am honored by the Board’s selection and am excited to have the opportunity to lead Spirit,” said Fornaro, who will also continue to serve as a member of Spirit’s Board. “Spirit’s focus will remain delivering a customer-friendly product and providing the lowest total price to the places we fly. I look forward to working with the rest of Spirit’s management team and team members to grow the Company’s proven ultra low-cost model and drive value for all of Spirit’s stockholders.”
Ben Baldanza, who led the industry push for more and more airline fees, is out as CEO of Spirit Airlines.
Spirit was losing money until Baldanza, 54, took over in 2006. He oversaw the airline’s transformation into an “ultra-low cost carrier,” an airline that didn’t include anything in its base fare and charged extra for seat assignments, snacks, soda, boarding passes and even using the overhead bin. To cram more people into its jets, Baldanza stripped passengers of the ability to recline their seats. He spun the move as making the seats “pre-reclined.”
Known for his brash, no-excuses style, Baldanza said that if people didn’t like the fees, they could fly another airline.
Baldanza at times reveled in the animosity that he helped to generate. Taped to the side of a corner bookshelf in his office was an expletive laden email from one disgruntled traveler that, in part, read: “I just want to let you know that your company sucks and your policy will run it into the ground.”
Baldanza’s over-the-top style often carried over into the airline’s ads.
When former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner admitted to sending lewd photos to women, the airline launched “The Weiner Sale: With Fares Too HARD to Resist.” The airline once hired bikini-clad pole-dancers to drive around Los Angeles with a sign saying: “You can take me home for $9.”
For many, Spirit’s prices are irresistible. For those who play the game right, sit in the middle seat and bring very little luggage, the savings are substantial. That has helped the airline become one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most-profitable carriers. It now has 375 daily flights to 56 destinations in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the past year, the amount of available seats has grown by 34 percent. But passenger revenues haven’t kept up, growing less than 1 percent, as other airlines also created their own structure of fees, which are no longer a novelty.
Shares of Spirit Airlines have been cut in half over the past year.
“Following the tremendous growth and success of Spirit over the last 10 years, the board and I have concluded that this is the right time to implement an orderly succession plan,” Baldanza said in a printed statement released by the Miramar, Florida airline.
Robert L. Fornaro, who led discount carrier AirTran before its sale to Southwest Airlines, will take over as CEO immediately.
Baldanza, who moved his family to Florida from the Washington D.C. suburbs to head Spirit, has recently moved back north, according to the airline.
Fornaro was appointed to the Spirit board of directors in May 2014. He served as CEO of AirTran Holdings from November 2007 until the company’s sale to Southwest in May 2011. He has also served as senior vice president of planning for US Airways and as senior vice president of marketing planning at Northwest Airlines.