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In his first public statements as CEO of Spirit (SAVE) , veteran airline executive Bob Fornaro said Spirit needs to evolve because the airline industry has evolved.

"The environment has changed a little bit,' Fornaro said Tuesday morning on Spirit's fourth-quarter earnings call. He spoke publicly for the first time since taking over as CEO in January. "For several years, capacity was well below the previous peak which was 2008.

"A couple of carriers were going through post-merger integration, another carrier was coming out of bankruptcy," he said. "That created perhaps a reduced competitive environment (and) many opportunities we chose were in hub-to-hub flying.'

But now, at a time of low fuel costs, major carriers are matching Spirit fares. So Spirit will look at smaller markets, just as AirTran -- where Fornaro was previously CEO -- used to do.

"I don't see a change in those {hub-to-hub} markets," Fornaro said. The strategy "produced very good results and still produces very good results ... {But} going forward we will be much more open to a broader view of routes. We will be just as focused on midsize markets.

"I think we will be less predictable going forward {with} less predictability in the way we pick routes," he said.

Besides altering the route strategy, Fornaro said what he was widely expected to say -- Spirit needs to enhance operational reliability in order to improve its reputation. That could attract more business fliers or at least those who must pay for their own tickets.

Fornaro said he would slightly reduce aircraft utilization, which is now at 12.5 hours a day; increase the number of spare aircraft, which are needed at an airline that often operates a single daily flight in a given market; and increase crew management staffing levels so crews are available when they are needed.

You cannot just add routes willy-nilly. "We've got a fleet plan that will take us in excess of 100 airplanes in a couple of years," Fornaro said. "We have to make sure operational planning is in sync with the fleet plan, rather than being behind.

"We need to get ahead of things," he said. "As we go to airports, we are generally the last person in the airport with the worst gates ... We need to put together plans before the fact rather than after the fact."

At year-end Spirit had 79 aircraft with an average age of 5.2 years, the youngest fleet of any major U.S. airline. Capacity is slated to grow 27.5% in the current quarter and about 20% for full year 2016. Spirit boasts a cost per available seat mile excluding fuel of 5.5 cents, among the lowest in the industry.

If operations improve, the airline's reputation would improve. "With an improvement in reputation, I think you will see a lot of business flier or corporate fliers who pay for their own ticket," Fornaro said. "That's a need we can fill, in addition to the price sensitive customer."

When an analyst noted that Spirit has abandoned some markets where it competed with JetBlue and Southwest (LUV) (which merged with AirTran), Fornaro said: "Both of those carriers, Southwest and JetBlue, have stronger reputations with the customers. It could be extra legroom; it could be no bag fees."

Fornaro said Spirit would consider taking out some seats in order to add more premium seats. But he added, "We're sitting here with the highest margins in the business. To make a change on the product which could take years and you may or may not be successful, that's not the first place I would look."

For the fourth quarter, Spirit reported net income of $73.3 million or $1.02 a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had estimated 99 cents. Investors seemed pleased with the results and with Fornaro's plans.  Spirit shares were rising 4.1% to $42 in trading Tuesday.

Year to date, Spirit shares are up about 7%, the only gain year-to-date gain for the nine major U.S. airlines.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.