Talk to any frequent flyer and they can probably rattle off a dozen complaints about various airlines, offering up a list of brands that should be avoided at all costs. Impressively, Spirit Airlines might just be one of the most reviled companies in an industry frequently known for drawing ire from unhappy customers.

Not only was Spirit Airlines front and center in The Consumerist’s Worst Company in America poll, making it all the way to the Sweet 16, the company has also managed to inspire Facebook hate groups, vitriolic Twitter accounts, and countless angry blog posts. So, what’s a universally despised company to do? In the case of Spirit Airlines, you fire back by calling customer complaints “irrelevant” and embrace a reputation as the “dollar store of the sky.”

In a recent interview, Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza explained that not all airlines are created equal. Using retail as an example, Baldanza pointed out, “People get that there’s a difference between a Nordstrom and a Target, and a Walmart and a dollar store,” equating his airline with the lowest tier when it comes to both quality and expectations.

When it comes to criticism that Spirit Airlines has taken nickel and diming passengers too far by charging extra for the use of overhead bins, Baldanza states, “Our fares pretty much include the right to get on the plane and get off at the other end…and have a safe and on time flight. And that’s about it.” The budget airline even tries to spin the unbundling of every possible option as being a practice that ultimately benefits the consumer, saying, “We think of it as creating more optionality for customers.”

Spirit takes “unbundling” to an impressive level, charging passengers $5 if they forget to print their ticket at home and need one printed by a boarding agent. The seemingly non-stop barrage of additional charges has earned Spirit Airlines the highest number of complaints per 100,000 passengers among any U.S. carrier, beating second place United by a margin of almost 3 to 1.

However, what’s truly amazing about Spirit Airlines is that they’re more profitable than ever. As Baldanza explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “We have no demand problem when we have the lowest price.” Since transforming the struggling airline into an ultra-low-cost carrier, Spirit Airlines has gone from the brink of bankruptcy to what is pound for pound the most profitable airline in the U.S. today.

When Baldanza says Spirit’s high number of customer complaints are “irrelevant,” he’s absolutely right. They’re not selling the same product as an airline trying to woo customers with promises of extra leg room, WiFi availability, or in-flight entertainment options. Spirit Airlines is in the business of getting people from one place to another as cheaply as possible. And, as Baldanza states, they’re “not in business to build an airline that maybe any of us specifically wants to fly.”

Put another way, Baldanza explains, “If you’ve eaten at Ruth’s Chris [Steak House] your whole life and you say, ‘Well, there’s this new restaurant. Let’s try it,’ and it’s McDonald’s, you’re going to be really disappointed. People who bash us have a different expectation of what they want out of their airline experience. There are airlines that will do what they want, so that’s OK.”

As of now the Spirit Airlines model seems to have plenty of momentum. Regardless of frequent complaints and calls for Baldanza’s resignation from customers who are less than thrilled with some of Spirit’s policies, there’s a large segment of consumers who will book airfare based solely on price.

The airline definitely isn’t for everyone, but the fact that it’s unapologetic about disappointing customers is what makes it an unusual case study. Spirit Airlines knows it’s a sucky airline, they just don’t care. As long as they can keep finding creative ways to keep their ticket prices significantly lower than their competitors, they’ll have a steady stream of customers eager to keep complaining about how much “Spirit Air sucks.”

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/4865488425/