Spirit Airlines (SAVE) already has managed to hit turbulence in 2016.
Shares of the discount airline started the year with a 7% liftoff, before abruptly nosediving back to where they started.
But the big surprise for some shareholders has been the disappearance of Ben Baldanza, Spirit's CEO since 2006. Spirit announced a replacement Tuesday: Bob Fornaro, the former CEO of AirTran before it merged with Southwest (LUV) in 2011.
Baldanza said in a release he is moving to Washington, D.C., with his family after the "tremendous growth and success of Spirit over the last 10 years," citing "the right time to implement an orderly succession plan."
Any investors doubting if this constitutes a genuine resignation, or if Baldanza was thrown out, need only take one look at the black box from last year.
First of all, no matter how you look at it, Spirit had an awful 2015. And it doesn't matter in which tier of the "trifurcated" industry (to use Baldanza's expression) the airline classifies itself.
Shares plummeted 46%, while many rivals soared, in each subgroup.
Starting with the major carriers -- which Baldanza identified at a November industry conference as American (AAL), United (UAL), Delta (DAL) and Southwest ¿ Spirit was dead last, and Baldanza's ambitious growth plans only seemed to exacerbate trouble.
Although American fell 22% on the year, United ticked up 3%; Delta, 2%; and Southwest, 1%.
One of Baldanza's biggest failings in trying to grow too quickly was disrupting American Airlines flights out of Dallas by bringing in a host of cheaper tickets, spurring American to counter with its own deals, Sterne Agee research analyst Adam Hackel said in a phone interview. (It's doubtless that American is a better-resourced company, with a $26 billion market cap vs. Spirit's $3 billion.)
"They grew 35% in available seat miles in 2015, and we think 10-15% range should be more manageable," Hackel said. "What ended up happening is they disrupted American, and American took action."
By matching discounts on flights out of Dallas to Las Vegas, in which Spirit controls about a quarter of the routes, a lot of customers preferred Delta's value and service proposition, according to Hackel.
"He was very aggressive about how he wanted to grow and really stuck to the low-fare, low-cost mantra," he said. "And the bear case on Spirit was always that they would disrupt American."
Putting aside whether Baldanza's strategy to grow volume at steep discounts ran into trouble with American, many have raised questions at how much service is sacrificed in a business model dominated by trimming expenses and adding more seats.
Turning to the middle tier of the industry, JetBlue (JBLU) soared 40% last year, while Alaska Air Group (ALK) jumped 33% and Virgin America (VA) fell 19%.
Spirit also likely finished last among the real small-caps, a group in which Baldanza has pointed to Allegiant Air (ALGT) and Frontier Airlines. Allegiant shares rose 11% last year, while Frontier is a private company held by Indigo Partners, the fund managed by Bill Franke, who incidentally was a former chairman at Spirit.
"We keep it really simple," Baldanza said at last November's conference. "We target travelers who pay for their own ticket."
So, to keep it real simple, in the spirit of Baldanza: After last year's performance nobody should have expected Spirit to give him a free ticket for 2016.