Thousands stranded as Spirit pilots strike over pay

A strike by Spirit Airlines pilots has shut down the budget carrier, stranding thousands of travellers.

A strike by Spirit Airlines pilots has shut down the budget carrier, stranding thousands of travellers.

The walkout, which began yesterday, forced the Florida-based airline to cancel its Saturday and Sunday flights. Its chief executive said no talks were planned with picketing pilots.

Spirit carries 16,680 passengers a day – about 1% of the US total – mostly between the eastern US and the Caribbean and Latin America. But its shutdown is causing major problems for its flyers.

Spirit tickets are only good on a handful of other carriers and only if there is space on the flight. The airline said it was refunding fares for Saturday flights plus a €80 credit toward future flights. It was trying to get its passengers booked on 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.

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, Florida, while travelling to New York for a cousin’s funeral.

Mr Elliott was unable to buy new tickets until his fare was refunded to his debit card. He had no mobile phone, no US currency, and nowhere to sleep but the terminal’s seats.

“It’s bad now,” he said. “I can’t even buy a cup of coffee.”

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is Spirit’s main hub, where it is the only airline to 14 international cities and five US destinations, said airport spokesman Greg Meyer. Around the country Spirit runs about 150 flights per day.

The Spirit terminal, usually the busiest in Fort Lauderdale, was full of angry travellers desperate to return home or start trips yesterday.

Extra Spirit staff and local police were posted in the ticketing area.

Spirit chief executive Ben Baldanza said he hoped to get some of Spirit’s 31 aircraft flying soon with management pilots or others who crossed the picket line, but no such flights took place yesterday.

He said Spirit had lined up one plane from another air carrier – he declined to say which one – to complete a few flights. He was hoping to add other carriers in the days ahead.

Spirit pilots have said their pay is less than competitors such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue. The airline and its pilots had been negotiating for more than three years.

Pilots “will not return to the cockpit until a fair and equitable contract is negotiated”, Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and head of its Air Line Pilots Association unit, said on the union’s website.

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

Airline analyst Vaughn Cordle said Spirit pilots made more per hour of flying in 2009 in wages and benefits than AirTran pilots, but less than JetBlue.

Mr Baldanza said Spirit has made money over the past year and a half and he knew its pilots would need pay rises.

The company offered to raise pilot pay by 30% over five years, although work rule changes mean pilots would have to fly more to earn that money.

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 €2,500 signing bonus and a larger retirement plan match.

The strike is being closely watched in the industry because pilots at much larger carriers, including AMR Corporation’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.

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