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Architect of Extra Fee Strategy Out as CEO of Spirit Airlines

NEW YORK -- Ben Baldanza, who led the industry push for more and more airline fees, is out as CEO of Spirit Airlines.

"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.

Image: Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza
Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza speaks during an interview in New York on June 30, 2011. Bebeto Matthews / AP, file

Robert L. Fornaro, who led discount carrier AirTran before its sale to Southwest Airlines, will take over as CEO immediately.

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 Spirit, Frontier Airlines, 'Tis the Season to Hike Bag Fees

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 Inc. have been cut in half over the past year.

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 Inc. 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.