MIAMI — Airline corporate headquarters have often been highly visible, sprawling, and sometimes extravagant monuments to their occupier’s status and public perception. Just as crucial, they have embodied the airline’s brand and corporate culture. In the past, the iconic Pan Am Building at one time was a ruler of the New York City Skyline. Braniff’s Corporate Campus, known as Braniff Place, in Dallas was known for its minimalist flair where every office was mandated with art and design cues from Calder, Pucci, and Girard.
Even in today’s more cost conscious environment, a number of these standout Parthenons remain. United relocated some years ago from suburban Elk Grove to Chicago’s prestigious downtown Willis Tower. British Airways’ Waterside headquarters on the outskirts of Heathrowis a mesmerizing “mini-city” as is Hong Kong’s Cathay City at Chek Lap Kok Airport. In these guided days of aviation, American is breaking ground on a new headquarters building at its existing training and operations campus near Dallas / Ft. Worth Airport.
A newer generation of low-cost and hybrid carriers such as Virgin America and jetBlue have chosen to build, build onto, or remodel existing headquarters to reflect a certain set of values and culture. Southwest’s Dallas Love headquarters are as much a living, breathing museum and showcase for the “culture that LUV built” as they are corporate offices.
Spirit’s Headquarters: More a Motel 6 than a Four Seasons
It’s a no brainer that the home of the disruptive ULCC Spirit Airlines corporate offices would be more cheap than chic, more downtrodden than downtown, more tenement than Taj Mahal. After all, what else would one expect of an airline that randily promotes itself as “Home of the Bare Fare”? Until very recently, much of that was true.
Spirit relocated to its current offices in 1999 from Eastpointe, Michigan, outside Detroit, to a remote unassuming office park at the edge of the Everglades in Miramar, Florida – some 20 miles southwest of Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Paul Berry, Spirit’s Director of Communications, Advertising, and Brand makes no apologies for why this location was chosen and remains the home of Spirit “because the expense of the actual space is much lower than it would be in other places in South Florida.”
Jyri Strandman, VP Flight Operations, doesn’t downplay the conditions: “It was horrible. When I started here, the carpets were so old. I joked, ‘if you spilled coffee, you’d better sign it because it’s going to stay there for 10 years’. No paintbrush had touched any wall possibly since when we took over the offices in ’99. But it was great because it stayed true to who we are. We are the carrier that says we are going to do it right, we are going to do it efficiently, we are going to do it safely, but we are not going to spend a friggin’ penny unless it’s going to contribute to giving passengers the lowest possible fares.”
Its airline lore, but all true to this day, that Spirit corporate employees vacuum their offices, take out their own trash, and no one has assigned parking spaces. Say what you will, then and now, but when it comes to keeping costs low, Spirit talks the talk and walks the walk.
First Fresh Coat of (Yellow, Lots of Yellow) Paint, and Then Some…
Facing 30% growth in 2015 and an additional forecast for 20% growth in 2016, the ultra-low-cost carrier was rapidly outgrowing its current corporate headquarters, located obscurely in a nondescript low slung office park on a street almost laughingly called “Executive Way”. Around the same time in 2014, the airline had introduced a playful new yellow brand and began to really focus on not only upgrading customer perception, but focusing on improving its corporate culture and workflow.
At Spirit, everything is opportunistic, and this presented a true opportunity. But any renovation, as with any expenditure at Spirit had to first and foremost conform to the airline’s obsessive mantra of keeping costs low to keep fares low. Berry expands on this philosophy: “We want to make sure that we provide our customers the lowest total price for air travel. When you have that as a mindset with everything you do, it really starts to seep into everything you do.”
In an interview, Ben Baldanza, the airline’s former CEO reinforces that cost containment was the principal driver in the renovation: “We applied to our corporate space what we do to our airplanes. We densified it up a bit. What Spirit was able to do was to manage its growth more efficiently without having to buy new administrative space. That was one of the driving factors over the whole thing. We could fit everyone in the existing building that way.”
By re-imaging the building’s layout in a more ergonomic, functional and efficient layout, the airline wouldn’t need to take on a much additional space beyond its current 71,000 square feet to accommodate current staff. Yet, it would still retain room for new staff without being forced to lease much more additional space. This would require staff of VP and below surrendering their offices for cubicles in an open floor plan. Even the executive suite offices would be shrunk by as much as 50%. In the case of the CEO’s office, it shrank by almost 75%. And many executives who did retain their offices would lose their “dramatic” window views of the parking lot to the staff in the open plan work spaces. It’s hard to find a more egalitarian administration headquarters than this in the notoriously hierarchal aviation industry.
In true Spirit fashion, the new headquarters would have enhanced efficiency, facilitate better teamwork, improve morale, and reflect the airline’s off-kilter, quirky, plucky sense of fun, though all of this would be secondary to driving lower costs to the bottom line.
The redesign would not benefit from anything even approaching a blank check. Paul Berry defends this approach: “I guarantee you wouldn’t have a Spirit investor walking in here saying ‘No wonder the stock price is down. It’s because of this.’ Some airlines you walk into (and their headquarters) are the Taj Mahal. They’re top of the line office buildings. Fact of the matter is that the people who are paying for those elaborate and luxurious office buildings are the customers. Ours pay for our office building too, but they’re not paying nearly as much as they would for another airline’s office building.”
Time to Walk the Walk for Ourselves: Touring Spirit’s Very Yellow HQ
Our tour of Spirit’s new headquarters was set for Tuesday January 5, 2016. Ominously, just a few hours before our arrival, Spirit had suddenly shaken up its leadership ranks with Robert Fornaro replacing Ben Baldanza as the airline’s CEO effective immediately. Undaunted, claiming things were “operating as business as usual”, Spirit’s Paul Berry was elected to carry on with the tour. Indeed, I detected no difference in the offices from any of my prior visits to the administrative offices.
I learned before during construction that Spirit wanted this construction effort to be as cost-effective as possible. And instead of just throwing money at the project, they would lean into their typical iconoclastic, out-of-the-box thinking. As I would find out, I was not to be disappointed by this assertion.
The physical exterior of the unassuming building had not changed one iota. It still looked very much the early 1990s rather anonymous office park it has always been. Upon being buzzed into the modestly sized lobby, the lavatory mockup had been replaced with a Spirit branded airport kiosk which is used by visitors to contact who they wish to see. Spirit employees can also check-in for their flights here. There is still a phone and a scattering chairs, but no receptionist. A conference room is off to the side, very unusual in that it’s not past the security doors.
A sole flat screen TV entertains visitors with Spirit’s digital video promotional hits (the airline produces no TV commercials), including “The Unbundlers” and the risqué “Bare Fare” pieces. Instead of executives or perspective employees in suits, a few passengers were waiting in the lobby, apparently to discuss a lost luggage claim. A cheerful, yellow mural proclaiming Spirit as home of “The Bare Fare” adorns the wall.
As you enter the offices, there’s a common space with a bigger than life wall-sized route map dubbed “Wall of Domination”. This gathering space is the location of employee celebrations and town hall announcements, such as the recently announced service to Seattle, or the new CEO’s arrival that morning.
Adjacent to the common space is Spirit’s version of a commissary. Its “Chillitarium” is self-deprecatingly billed as “The premier place to eat and relax…within this building”. True to form, there are vending machines everywhere, but nothing is free. Not even the coffee. This upbeat and brightly decorated room doubles as the airline’s culture center and another central meeting place.
Where other airlines have photos of their fleet, destinations, awards, or in the case of Braniff –who once provided a fine art Alexander Calder lithograph to every executive office – Spirit’s wall decor reflects the airline’s playful DNA. The wall treatments lend themselves more to graffiti street art than the typical stodgy corporate branding. Complimented by yellow Airbus models everywhere, this Banksy-like street art communicates and celebrates the lion’s share of the airline’s branding throughout the entire office.
The cheeky graffiti art is commissioned by Spirit’s advertising agency, Barkley and Associates, and the posters are designed by Arian Gimbutas, the agency’s Art Director. They are custom designed for each department, each of which provides input in what the art should say: information technology, network planning, revenue management, flight operations, human resources, reservations, etc. They are chock full of humor, inside jokes, and information that provides an insight into each department’s role.
According to Paul Berry, who is the director of brand and communications, there’s a method to this seeming madness: “Each department has the ability to add their own art that fits within our brand that runs through our shop here. What you see here, as far as the art and the painting and the vibe in the grand scheme of things, is very inexpensive, but they’re very personalized so the different departments truly have ownership.”
Even the bathroom signage carries the airline’s offbeat sensibility, with not so subtle but amusing differences between the men’s and women’s facilities. Spirit has never shied away from being a bit risqué in its advertising approach, so why would the restrooms be any different?
Spirit is famed for mocking conventions, and motivational posters are a good target for how Spirit takes full advantage. Personalization of each employee’s name placards are encouraged as well.
As mentioned earlier, Spirit adopts a take-no-prisoners, cost-neutral-as-possible approach to any project, including renovations. The business cards, for example are paid for by Hotels Connect and Barclays. Spirit even sought out vendors such as Lufthansa Technik, LSG SkyChefs, and Airbus to sponsor naming rights, designs, and ultimately underwrite the costs for new conference rooms and phone booths.
This relentless focus on cost savings extends to details as small as office supplies. Virtually all printers are set-up to print on both sides of a sheet of paper, reducing paper costs.
Efficiency and Ergonomics Egalitarianism
When American and U.S. Airways first consummated their merger in December 2013, Doug Parker mentioned that his first official act was to do away with assigned parking spaces and remove the security guard and locked partitions between the executive offices and the rest of the administrative facility. Spirit takes this a step further. Instead of being hidden away in a high, private floor, the executive offices are all located prominently right next to the lobby.
The diminutive offices are all the same size in dimension from VP up to CEO level, and are completely open to everyone who passes by. This isn’t purely a “man of the People” concession to the culture made popular by the new Silicon Valley based economy. It’s really about cost containment. “If you want to have the lowest fare, don’t spend money on things customers don’t care about. And one thing customers don’t care about is how nice and how big the size of the CEO’s office is,” says Baldanza. And yes, even the C-Suite executives still vacuum their own offices.
There is no trophy case, no row of assistants, or fleet display case either. Spirit’s coveted ATW 2015 Airline of the Year Award sits on the desk of the sole executive assistant in the leadership suite. Models representing Spirit’s past and present fleet and commemorative gifts from the manufacturer are spread randomly throughout the building. What about private restrooms and conference rooms? Forget it! At Spirit, the leadership team is expected to walk the walk like everyone else.
The entire space is geared to pack more people into a smaller footprint (though some have gained space), and to enhance comfort, collaboration, and efficiency. Most departments and teams work in broad open spaces festooned in Spirit yellow and white with model airplanes on display. There’s also no prohibition on other airline’s being represented here. Many employees have roots at other airlines and thus American, AirTran, and LCC’s have models of fleets prominently represented. It’s encouraged for people to fly not only Spirit’s colors, but those of their previous employers. This non heavy handed, “come as you are” relaxed approach to corporate culture seems to make up for the lack of perks offered by other companies.
Many department heads gave up their own offices to relocate to open spaces with their team-members. And those that still have offices tend to spend a lot of time on the floor and all are nearly located with their teams. For example, Berry lost his former office in the executive suite, relocating to an open cubicle right smack in the middle of his teams. He enjoyed his office, and that he had a closet, but sees advantages to the new layout.
“Certainly, we wanted to have a situation where there was more collaboration. In the old offices, you can go into your office or into your cubby hole and just hide. Well, now if I want to talk to my team they’re all right there. If I want to talk to one of my colleague’s teams, they’re all together and I can get the information real quick. You’re also seeing a lot of people spending more time together as a team. It is certainly an easier place to work than before. It is certainly from an aesthetic point of view a much cleaner place to work, too.”
Berry proudly points to the fact that the file cabinets are on rollers and topped with a cushion, thus doubling as a chair. Spirit is able to foster collaboration without buying more chairs than needed. Employees are expected to participate in keeping their work-spaces clean, while keeping costs down by vacuuming their own spaces and taking their own trash out. Vacuum cleaners, community trashes and recycling bins populate all the office areas.
Not every Spirit hire gets just how laser focused the airline is on keeping costs low, but they tend not to last long. Berry believes most of the company’s 4,912 employees are onboard: “I think if you ask anybody what their job here is, they might tell you what their duties are specifically. But if you say ‘What is Spirit’s job?’ They will generally answer that ‘We want to make sure that we provide our customers the lowest total price for air travel.’
Spirit’s New OCC: The Last Piece of the Puzzle
Many airlines are engaged in a sort of Operations Control Arms Race –seeking to one up each other with their latest and greatest OCC’s. Over the last 5 years, American, Southwest, Delta, and United have all inaugurated new OCC’s (sometimes called IOC’s or NOC’s) and Spirit is no exception, having just completed the renovation of their OCC – the last phase in this project.
Spirit’s 5,000 square foot mission critical facility is located across the street from the administrative offices. It is responsible for overseeing the operations of Spirit’s burgeoning fleet of 80 aircraft, 400 flights per day to 56 destinations, 1,300 pilots, and 2,156 cabin attendants. In line with the Spirit’s aggressive growth plans, the OCC has 75 total workspace positions which are being rapidly occupied.
Strandman forecasts having to knock the adjacent wall out, displacing IT, within the next few years as OCC expands. Spirit’s operational challenges are well documented as it seeks to wring the most out of its fleet and schedule to ensure the lowest possible costs and deliver the lowest possible fares. I expected this to be a tense atmosphere. And though there is palpable pressure, the mood here is just as convivial yet focused as it is throughout Spirit.
Just as with pilots, there’s a bond, a brotherhood, and mutual respect among flight operations personnel both within an airline and between competitors. Airlines do share best practices and open their OCC’s to the competition. An unspoken bonus is that they also enjoy bragging rights in showing off all the new bells and whistles of their new ops centers. Unsurprisingly, outlier Spirit isn’t out to impress anyone with its OCC; shared with the IT department, the OCC looks more like it was designed by Ikea than by NORAD.
Strandman, who oversees the 60 plus dispatchers, crew schedulers, fleet, meteorology, aircraft maintenance, AOG (aircraft-on-ground), and ATC routing and specialty teams, says, “We don’t want to showcase anything. This is the place where we put the puzzles together. The goal of our OCC is very simple: get all the players in the same space, where they actually communicate. We are not into monument building. We are into running a safe, reliable operation while keeping costs and fares low.”
Clearly, Spirit sees its new headquarters as anything but a monument to excess; it rather views profitability and enabling people to fly at the lowest cost possible as their true monument to success.