Spirit Airlines President Reassures Turbulent Aviators

After management received a vote of ''no confidence'' from pilots, Spirit Airlines President and Chief Operating Officer Ben Baldanza Monday acknowledged frustration over scheduling issues, but said those problems are being addressed and furloughed pilots have been called back to work.

Pilots, meanwhile, may schedule an informational picket in the near future, a union representative said.

'Some of the pilots' frustrations are very legitimate,'' Baldanza said in a telephone interview. ''The company has had a tough time, a very difficult transition to new aircraft. We have yanked around people's lives a bit to fly the schedule that we put out to our customers.''

Last week, the Air Line Pilots Association -- which represents Spirit's 404 pilots -- said its four-member leadership council had voted unanimously to express ''no confidence'' in the management of Spirit, which is headquartered in Miramar.

''The issues are pay and contract noncompliance,'' pilot Herbert Law of Fort Lauderdale said. ''We don't feel he Baldanza kept his promise to the union to follow the contract.''

Law said Spirit hasn't adequately staffed the airline. Pilots were being called in the middle of the night on their days off and being asked to fly extra hours. Meanwhile, other pilots have been on furlough. And a large number of paychecks aren't properly calculated, he said.

Baldanza said Spirit is in the middle of a two-year replacement of its fleet of 33 MD-80 aircraft with Airbus's narrow-body jets, the A319 and A321. The newer jets are more fuel efficient and can fly longer distances, he said. About half of the jets are set to be replaced by year-end.

Pilots have to spend six weeks in training to make the transition and then they must fly 100 hours in the Airbus jets in order to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification.

Spirit had expected the process to take about 60 days per pilot, but Baldanza said it is lasting longer, typically 83 days. The delays are partly due to FAA pilots being unavailable for some of the certification flights.

As a result, there have been a high number of scheduling changes, he said.

As for the middle-of-the-night calls, which Law said are prohibited on pilots' days off, Baldanza said those have been stopped.

Law said on average one in four pilots have had paycheck errors in recent months.

''We have had problems in payroll that are directly related to the complexity of the many crew scheduling changes,'' Baldanza said. ''They are largely behind us now.''

Baldanza said the 20 pilots furloughed in May, plus 10 in June, were called back to work as of Aug. 1. He also said training is expected to accelerate now that the busy summer travel season is ending.

Baldanza said he hoped to meet with union leader Capt. Vince Heist this week.

''We don't want to come across as people who are dissatisfied with our work. We like the company and like our jobs,'' Law said. ''But we want to do the best job we can and we want the company to do their part.''

Copyright 2005 Associated Press