Spirit Airlines pilot strike delays thousands

Passengers that count on the budget airline have been left stranded at airports. Spirit Airlines tickets are not accepted by any other airlines.

Alan Diaz/AP
Jeanne Cook (r.), Tammy Ruben (c.), and Bradley Cook (l.), all of Sarasota, Fla., sit on the floor at the Spirit Airlines counter as their vacation flight to Nassau was canceled at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Friday.

A strike by Spirit Airlines pilots shut down the discount carrier on Saturday, stranding thousands of travelers.

Spirit carries roughly 1 percent of U.S. air passengers, mostly between the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean and Latin America. It's a small carrier but its shutdown was causing major problems.

Spirit's tickets aren't good on other carriers. The airline said it was refunding fares for Saturday flights plus a $100 credit toward future flights. It didn't immediately announce plans for its Sunday flights.

On Saturday, new, same-day tickets on other airlines were at least two- to three times the fares originally booked on Spirit.

That was out of the question for Junior Elliott, a 67-year-old mason from St. Ann's parish in Jamaica, who was stranded in Fort Lauderdale while traveling to New York for a cousin's funeral.

Elliott was unable to buy new tickets until his fare was refunded to his debit card. He had no cell phone, no U.S. currency, and nowhere to sleep but the terminal's seats.

"It's bad now, man," Elliott said. "I can't even buy a cup of coffee."

From Fort Lauderdale, Spirit is the only airline to 14 international cities and five U.S. destinations, said Greg Meyer, the spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Spirit carries more than 16,000 passengers a day, many of them through that hub. Around the country Spirit runs roughly 150 flights per day.

The carrier and its pilots have been in negotiations for more than three years. Spirit pilots have said their pay lags competitors such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue.

Pilots could have walked out as early as midnight Friday, but kept talking under the guidance of the National Mediation Board in Washington until about 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT). The pilot's union Fort Lauderdale local said a loaded flight out of Orlando, Florida, had to deplane because the strike started just before takeoff.

"In the end, both sides could not reach an agreement," said Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and the head of the airline's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, in a statement on the union's website.

He said pilots "will not return to the cockpit until a fair and equitable contract is negotiated."

The privately-held airline based in Miramar, Florida, has about 440 active pilots.

The company said it offered to raise pilot pay by 30 percent over five years. It would have included work rule changes but would have retained 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.

Air carrier strikes are rare. The last one 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.


Freed reported from Minneapolis.

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