Spirit pilot strike cancels flights through Tuesday

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Spirit Airlines canceled all of its flights through Tuesday, stranding thousands of passengers or forcing them to pay out-of-pocket for new flights.

"None of the planes are moving and none of our pilots have crossed the picket line," said Paul Hopkins, who serves as strike committee chairman of Spirit's unit of the Air Line Pilots Association.

The Miramar, Fla.-based airline carries 16,680 passengers per day, about 1 percent of the nation's total. The privately held airline is the largest at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the airport's passengers.

Aviation consultants are divided over how long the pilots' strike - the nation's first in five years - will take to resolve. Union leaders say after more than three years of failed talks they're prepared to hold out for a new contract, though they hope it won't come to that.

Spirit is offering full refunds or credits for the cost of flights plus $100 future flight credit. Refunds and credits are being processed through the company's reservation line at 800-772-7117.

For a second day, the airport's terminal 4 on Sunday morning was the scene of anger and frustration as travelers returning from Caribbean cruises and struggled to find another way home. Most had heard of the strike and knew their flights were canceled, but had no place to go but the airport.

Plenty of Spirit gate agents and counter clerks were on hand to help, but few passengers seemed pleased with the help Spirit employees offered: a refund that would show up later on a credit card. There was no help to try to find flights on other carriers.

"To leave us here stranded like this is ridiculous," said Kivi Larson, 44, with a family group of 15 trying to get home to Chicago after a week-long celebration of her parents' 50th anniversary aboard the Princess Emerald.

Larson's sister Gita Gidwani, 48, was irate. "We have seven children here under 7 and our elderly parents," she said. "We can't get back home, and they don't seem to care."

"I'm just going to send Spirit a bill for what it costs us to get home."

In the terminal not far away Sylvia Wattley, 61, said she had no idea how to get back to Torola in the British Virgin Islands after her flight to St. Thomas was canceled. She and relatives were returning from a cruise to Grand Cayman and Honduras. "I'm going to get a refund of about $200," she said after talking to the Sprit agent at the counter. "But it will cost me at least $900 for a one-way ticket to St. Thomas today."

Most Spirit passengers said they heard about the strike Saturday when still aboard ship. "I have high blood pressure, and this is just making it worse," said Wattley, a retired financial adviser. "I couldn't sleep last night worrying about this."

On Saturday the story was much the same.

"I just want to go home," Christine Kemp, 55, of Nassau shouted at Spirit's ticket counter of Fort Lauderdale airport Saturday morning. After a sheriff's deputy calmed her down, she told reporters she was upset Spirit did nothing more to help her than reimburse her the return portion of her ticket back home.

"They said 'We are going to give you a voucher.' I'm not going to fly with them again, so what good is the voucher?"

Rubi Davidson, 31, of Ontario, Canada, was trying to fly back to Detroit. The cost of the flight from Fort Lauderdale to Detroit on Spirit was $100. One-way flights she was looking at Saturday were at least $900. She said she was frantically calling family members to get funds to return to Detroit, and then drive back to Canada.

Spirit does not have agreements with other carriers that let those airlines easily accept Spirit tickets, according to the company's contract of carriage agreement and pilots' union officials.

"When I called, the agent flatly refused to attempt to rebook me on another carrier," said Tara McLoughlin, of College Park, Md., in an e-mail to the Sun Sentinel.

As of late Saturday, there were still about two dozen passengers pleading with Spirit counter employees to find accommodations or a way home. Some were told, as recently as Friday that their flights were on time.

"We booked this flight two weeks ago and they told us that because it wasn't an official strike then they were still able to book our flight," said Debarg Brooms, who was headed to Los Angeles from Trinidad. "Now we're stuck here until Tuesday."

Travel experts encourage passengers to explain their situation to other carriers and try to negotiate a discounted airfare. Carriers don't advertise their ability to make accommodations for stranded passengers, but some will offer lower-than-published fares in attempt to sell an open seat and win the loyalty of a new customer.

Talks between leaders of Spirit's unit of the Air Line Pilots Association and company management came to a halt at 5 a.m. Saturday, when pilots walked away from the bargaining table.

"Although (management's final proposal) was moving in the right direction, it wasn't enough to agree to settle," said Sean Creed, head of the Spirit unit of the Air Line Pilots Association.

According to Creed, the sticking point was an increase that puts pilot salaries in line with other discount airlines almost immediately, rather than steady increases over the five-year contract.

In a news release, Spirit said it had offered pilots 30 percent pay increases totaling $70 million over five years, net of productivity improvements. They also would have retained a four-day off break between each trip, the release said. In addition, each pilot would have received a $3,000 signing bonus.

"We are frustrated and disappointed," the pilots turned down the offer, Spirit Airlines President and CEO Ben Baldanza, said in the release.

With about 150 daily flights, Spirit is a small carrier in the U.S. air travel network. However, it's the largest carrier at the Fort Lauderdale airport, flying nearly one in five passengers. It accounts for 41 percent of the international traffic, providing exclusive service to 14 international routes in Latin America and the Caribbean.

At Palm Beach International Airport, Spirit flies seasonally and represents about 1 percent of the total year-round operations. It does not serve Miami International Airport.

Despite its rather limited U.S. footprint, Spirit could influence labor negotiations at other U.S. airlines, which have a broader reach. For example, pilots at Orlando-based Air Tran gave union leaders authority to call a strike last month.

Some airline experts say Spirit pilots and management may be closer to an agreement than they're letting on.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd says he believes that because the strike deadline was extended twice. "There's movement there," he said. "They may not be that far from each other."

Mike Batchelor, airline maintenance director and consultant in Palm Beach County, Fla., doesn't think it's going to be a long strike.

"If it is (a long strike), Spirit is going to be in trouble," he said, predicting the airline will "go under and file for bankruptcy in less than a month, if they don't get back to the table and resolve this."

According to quarterly reports issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Spirit earned $108 million in 2009, showing the highest profit margins of any U.S. airline. The carrier is owned by two private equity firms: Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management and Indigo Partners of Tempe, Ariz. Officials from the firms did not respond to media requests for comment.

The pilots can draw on a national strike fund, if the walkout lasts longer than 35 days, Creed said.

Pressures on Spirit to settle the labor dispute are likely stronger than they were for other airlines in the past.

"In the old days airlines used to have a mutual aid agreement, that the added revenue other airlines got from a strike would be provided back to the carrier that had the strike. They can't do that anymore. It's a total loss of revenue for them," said Don Greeson, partner, Airline Capital & Consulting in Coral Springs.

He said there is no indication the parties are near a settlement, as pay is a major bone of contention.

As far as the union's concerned, "The ball is in their court," Creed said of Spirit management.

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