Spirit Airlines cancels flights through Tuesday as pilots continue strike; thousands strandedBy Travis Reed, AP
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Spirit Airlines cancels flights through Tuesday
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Spirit Airlines is canceling all of its flights through Tuesday, stranding thousands more passengers as a pilot’s strike continues into its second day.
The discount carrier said on its website Sunday that all Spirit Airlines flights have been cancelled through June 15. Spirit pilots walked off the job Saturday amid an ongoing contract dispute with the airline that has lasted for more than three years. Spirit pilots have said their pay lags behind competitors such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue.
“None of the planes are moving and none of our pilots have crossed the picket line,” Paul Hopkins, strike committee chairman of Spirit’s unit of The Air Line Pilots Association, said Sunday.
The privately held airline, based in Miramar, Fla., carries 16,680 passengers per day — about 1 percent of the U.S. total — mostly between the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean and Latin America. Spirit’s CEO said this weekend that no talks were scheduled with picketing pilots.
The shutdown continues to cause major problems for Spirit’s flyers. The airline said it is refunding fares for flights Saturday through Tuesday plus offering a $100 credit toward future flights as it tries to get its passengers booked onto other airlines.
But people who needed to replace their Spirit tickets found the cost of same-day fares on other airlines was two- to three times more than their tickets.
Tim and Dana Wells spent the past week on a cruise ship and didn’t hear about the strike until a taxi dropped them off at Fort Lauderdale airport Sunday morning.
Wells, 40, frantically searched his laptop for a flight home to St. Joseph, Mich. His wife’s pink sunhat rested on the seat next to him as a distant reminder of the peaceful vacation that’s turned into a nightmare.
“I think Spirit should be put out of business if they are going to do that to their customers,” he said.
The couple eventually found flights home for nearly $1,300 — almost $1,000 more than their original tickets. The new flight didn’t leave until 6 pm, leaving them stranded all day at the airport.
Fellow travelers Jackie and Gary Brown had surprised their two sons with a cruise vacation. “They’ve never been on a plane, never been out of the Midwest,” said the Bartlett, Ill., mother.
Now the family is planning to rent a car and drive home to save money. Spirit refunded their original tickets which they bought for $900 for the whole family. A flight home on Sunday cost about $900 for each person, they said.
“We just don’t have a lot of options right now,” said Jackie Brown, who said she and her husband are both worried about missing work on Monday. She sat on the airport floor, surrounded by luggage, typing furiously on her cell phone looking for ways home.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is Spirit’s main hub, where it is the only airline to 14 international cities and five U.S. destinations, airport spokesman Greg Meyer said. Around the country Spirit runs roughly 150 flights per day.
Dozens more angry passengers waited at Spirit ticket counters Sunday morning, many vowing never to use the airline again. Children sat on beds made of luggage, waiting and playing video games. Extra Spirit staff and local police officers were posted in the ticketing area.
Outside nearly a dozen uniformed pilots held signs, a few marched peacefully in a circle.
“We do sympathize with (the passengers),” said Spirit pilot Travis Wheat. He said they tried to warn passengers of a pending strike weeks earlier with billboards and press releases.
Finding a hotel room while waiting to depart hasn’t been easy either.
Lace Alvarado, who books reservations for the Compass Cove Resort hotel in Myrtle Beach, S.C., one of Spirit’s destinations, said the strike so far hasn’t sparked many cancellations. However, a few stranded travelers have called to try to book rooms, but weren’t able to be accommodated because the hotel is filled with vacationers getting away from beaches near the gulf that have shown signs of oily refuse from BP’s spill, she said.
Spirit said Sunday it offered to raise pilot pay by about 29 percent over five years — a move that would have cost the company an additional $70 million. Work rule changes would mean pilots would have to fly more to earn that money, however. Spirit’s offer also kept a four-day break between every pilot trip, something the company said no other ALPA contract has. The offer also included a $3,000 signing bonus and a larger retirement plan match.
“It is surprising to me that ALPA would turn down this generous offer that would have paid senior captains over $200,000 per year,” said Spirit Airlines President and CEO Ben Baldanza in a statement. “I am concerned that our employees are being used in a broader political game that may not be in the interest of their careers or their families. This deal should be about Spirit and Spirit only, not about the pilots whose contracts are under negotiation at other ALPA carriers.”
But Capt. Sean Creed, chairman of the Air Lines Pilot Association group at Spirit, said Sunday that the company’s offer only matches inflation. He said that he’s looking to have wages for Spirit pilots competitive with those at rivals like JetBlue Airways Corp.
Creed noted that a captain with 10 years’ experience at JetBlue earns about $158 an hour; that compares with $138 an hour for a Spirit captain with 15 years’ experience.
“We are looking for parity,” he said. He noted the proposed increase is good but “it’s spread out too far.”
Baldanza said in an interview Saturday that Spirit has made money over the past year and a half and he knew its pilots would need raises. He had added that he hoped to get some of Spirit’s 31 aircraft flying soon with management pilots or others who cross the picket line. No such flights have yet taken place.
The carrier has about 440 active pilots.
The strike is being closely watched in the industry because pilots at much larger carriers, including AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, are also locked in tough negotiations.
The last strike at a major carrier was in 2005, when Northwest Airlines mechanics walked off the job rather than accept deep pay cuts. The strike failed after Northwest replaced them.
AP Business Writer Anne D’Innocenzio reported from New York.
Tags: Accommodations, Air Travel, Air Travel Disruptions, Budget Travel, Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Labor Issues, Latin America And Caribbean, Leisure Travel, Myrtle Beach, North America, South Carolina, Spirit Airlines-pilots, Transportation, United States