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Spirit Airlines founder soared in business

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As a youth in Metro Detroit, Ned Homfeld loved competitively racing sailboats — maneuvering his vessel through turns and wind to glide past his rivals’ virtually identical ones.

That informed how the businessman approached Spirit Airlines, which he founded as a small charter operation but transformed into one of the region’s major passenger carriers.

“He certainly enjoyed the challenge of growing a business,” said his sister, Nancy Miller. “Not only did he want to grow the business, but he wanted it to be successful.”

Mr. Homfeld died Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, after complications of treatment for leukemia, relatives said. He was 66.

For decades, his vision helped Spirit Airlines soar, offering no-frill, low-fare service to travelers.

The company launched by the 1980s, leasing planes for charter flights, mainly to Atlantic City. The next decade, Mr. Homfeld started acquiring aircraft and offering regular passenger service, including to Florida, according to Detroit News archives.

The Metro Detroit-based carrier formerly known as Charter One was renamed Spirit — adding destinations, better utilizing aircraft and increasing the profit margin.

“We picked niche markets where the competition was minimal or where demand would be very high,” Mr. Homfeld told The News in 1993.

Over the years, the airline expanded and as recently as 2013 notched Detroit Metro Airport’s third-highest passenger traffic total. Now based in Florida, Spirit operates 250-plus flights daily to more than 50 destinations in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, according to its website.

Mr. Homfeld, named by Ernst & Young as Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999, once told The News that his airline had lost money in only two years.

“We are as good as the majors,” he said in a 2003 interview. “We want to give consumers a product that meets or exceeds that of the major carriers. They now see they have to compete with us.”

Whether dealing with top competitors or pursuing advances such as paperless tickets, “he was very innovative,” said Mark Kahan, a longtime business associate. “It became a tremendous success over the decades and it wasn’t easy. If not for Ned’s willingness to absorb the punches that come your way as an entrepreneur in the airline business, Spirit wouldn’t have made it.”

Even as his enterprise spread, Mr. Homfeld strived to maintain a small-company culture. “It was about creating a family and making sure everyone loved their job and loved the company they were working for,” said his daughter, Nichole Homfeld.

Born March 2, 1949, in Pontiac, to Max and Nancy Homfeld, he studied marine engineering at the University of Michigan.

At 19, the Grosse Pointe Farms native drove a truck for a hauler. When it went bust, Mr. Homfeld bought a truck, gained his former employer’s largest account and formed Ground Air Transport Inc., which specialized in delivering parts to automotive suppliers and manufacturers in Detroit and Cleveland, relatives said.

The operation led to a financing business; Mr. Homfeld used profits to create Charter One, the precursor to Spirit, The News reported. The airline had Michigan headquarters but in 1999 relocated to Florida, where its founder also moved. Mr. Homfeld was chairman and retired more than a decade ago, relatives said.

For fun, he loved reading mysteries, doting on his family as well as cooking everything from omelets to crab soufflés, Nichole Homfeld said. “He was a great cook and very experimental.”

Mr. Homfeld also supported numerous charities, welcomed the chance to help his employees and, several years ago, secured travel arrangements for an acquaintance who needed cancer treatments, Miller said. “It was the sort of thing Ned did: helping people who needed it.”

Even recently, he stayed active, including making plans to craft a sewing table for his daughter. “He was a do-it-yourself kind,” she said.

Besides his daughter and sister, other survivors include a son, Jonathon; and two additional siblings.

An open house is scheduled for 2-7 p.m. Saturday at Bagnasco & Calcaterra Funeral Home, 13650 E. 15 Mile, Sterling Heights. Another celebration in Florida is planned.