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Spirit Airlines Cancels All Flights

Spirit Airlines pilots strike, thousands stranded as all flights canceled

Jun 13, 2010

Spirit Airlines is canceling all of its flights through Tuesday, stranding thousands more passengers as a strike by its pilots 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, Florida, 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, Michigan. 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, Illinois, 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.

Andre Pageotte is still waiting to find another flight to Haiti. The 48-year-old biologist from Massachusetts said Spirit refunded his money but the cheapest ticket he could find was roughly $300 leaving from Miami on Monday.

"There's nothing I can do," said Pageotte, who plans to spend six months in Haiti working on clean water and air projects.

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.

The company has offered to raise pilot pay by 30 percent 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 $3,000 signing bonus and a larger retirement plan match.

But Capt. Sean Creed, chairman of the Air Lines Pilots 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."

Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said in an interview Saturday that he hoped to get some of Spirit's 31 aircraft flying soon with management pilots or others who cross the picket line, but no such flights have yet taken place. Baldanza said that Spirit has made money over the past year and a half. He said he knew its pilots would need raises.

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.

Spirit Airlines pilots strike, thousands stranded as all flights canceled
Image via AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Source: AP

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