Spirit Airlines close to strike deadline with pilots; airline says little about weekend plans

By Joshua Freed, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spirit Airlines nears deadline with pilots

Negotiations between Spirit Airlines and its pilots entered their final stage on Friday, with pilots threatening to walk out at midnight if they don’t get a new contract.

“We’re still in negotiations, and we still hope to reach a deal, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Arthur Luby, assistant director of representation for the Air Line Pilots Association.

The company has also said it hopes to make a deal, and strike threats are a common feature of the endgame of airline negotiations.

Still, a pilot strike at Spirit could disrupt the travel plans for thousands of passengers. The airline canceled some flights in advance.

Cousins Greg Watson, 44, and Doug Ferraro, 43, were among the passengers affected by the cancellations. They made it from Tampa, Fla., to Spirit’s hub in Fort Lauderdale, only to find that the next leg of their vacation to the Bahamas was canceled.

“We didn’t even get a phone call — we showed up and they said they had no pilots,” Watson said. “They don’t have any back-up plan. This is the most disorganized thing I’ve ever seen — it’s ridiculous.”

They were given $75 to take a taxi to the Miami airport so they could try to catch a flight from there. They said they would never fly Spirit again.

“I’ve already got someone working on a nasty letter,” Ferraro said.

Spirit pilots have said their pay lags that of competitors like JetBlue Airways Corp. and AirTran Airlines, part of AirTran Holdings Inc.

“We are looking for pay parity,” said Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and the head of the Air Line Pilots Association unit there, in a recent interview. “We’re not looking to be industry leading,” he said. “We’re not looking to place the company at an economic disadvantage.”

Negotiations were being conducted in Washington and directed by the National Mediation Board. If there’s no deal, pilots could strike as early as 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday. The President can halt an airline strike, but that was considered unlikely because of Spirit’s small size. It runs roughly 150 flights per day, compared to 6,200 for Delta Air Lines Inc., the world’s largest carrier.

Spirit is based in Miramar, Fla. Most of its flights originate in the eastern U.S. and connect to Latin America, many of them through Fort Lauderdale. It dubs itself an ultra low-cost carrier, and says that some of its tickets go for $9. It attracted notice recently when it announced that beginning Aug. 1 it would charge passengers up to $45 for carry-on bags.

The airline is privately held. Creed said pilots got along well with Spirit’s previous owners, but the current owners have shown “a marked difference in how they treated employees.”

Spirit declined to make CEO Ben Baldanza available for an interview in the days before the strike. On Wednesday it said it would operate through any strike with the help of other air carriers, but spokeswoman Misty Pinson did not offer details. On Thursday Spirit began canceling flights and stopped selling tickets for its Saturday and Sunday flights. Pinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

While workers in other industries, and airline workers in Europe, are relatively free to strike, U.S. airline workers are bound by the rules of the Railway Labor Act, which tightly restricts work actions in the interest of keeping the transportation system moving. That makes U.S. airline strikes relatively rare. The Spirit pilot contract has been up for changes since January 2007.

Bob and Christine Koehler of Sarasota, Fla., were also stuck for hours at the Fort Lauderdale airport because of a canceled Spirit flight.

“It’s ’sit back and wait until they tell you,’” Bob Koehler said. “It’s a mess. They have no regard for anybody else’s time.”

Associated Press Writer Travis Reed in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.

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