The Real Reason People Are Brawling in a Spirit Airlines Terminal

May 9th 2017

Mike Rothschild

A stretch of spectacularly bad press for airlines across the United States just got even worse, as fights broke out at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Monday night over low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines cancelling close to a dozen flights.

When the flights were abruptly canceled, confused and angry passengers crowded around Spirit's ticket counters. According to various local reports, passengers pushed, shoved, screamed at employees, and at one point, knocked down a sheriffs' deputy who was trying to keep order. Naturally, cell phone video of the brawl hit social media, and became the newest meme generator, with many playing on the low-cost carrier's propensity for charging high fees for carry-on bags.







But while the brawl itself got the bulk of the headlines, the reason for the flight cancelations — a dispute between the airlines and the pilot's union, the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) — has been less publicized. 

Spirit pilots have been engaged in a dispute with the airline for over a month, with the airline finally suing both the pilots and the ALPA in federal court on Tuesday morning. According to MarketWatch, the suit alleges that the pilots "purposely caused an illegal slowdown by refusing to accept open time flying, where flights might be scheduled but not assigned to a pilot or a pilot may call in sick or drop trips." 



The lack of pilots for scheduled flights has led to the flights being canceled, with hundreds being pulled off Spirit's schedule in the past week.

MarketWatch details the battle as a bitter, long, and expensive one, with the pilots seeking increases to wages, retirement benefits, and profit-sharing and the airline not meeting them halfway. "Spirit offered a counterproposal of a 30 percent pay increase after hearing the initial ALPA presentation, which would have cost the company more than $1.9 billion," MarketWatch writes.

On their website, the ALPA claims Spirit is negotiating in bad faith.

"For more than two years, Spirit pilots have been in negotiations for a contract that provides industry-standard compensation," the union claims. "However, the company—while generating above industry average profit margins—is proposing a compensation package that would cement its pilots at the bottom of the industry and "offset" any increases in pay or benefits with work rule concessions."

According to Airline Pilot Central, an informational resource for North American pilots, Spirit Air's pay is near the bottom of what they call "major" airlines, and below every top-tier legacy airline

Both sides are blaming each other for the work stoppage that resulted in the canceled flights.

In a statement to media outlets, which the ALPA issued to ATTN: as well, the ALPA said "The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l and the Spirit pilot group it represents are not engaged in a job action. Rather, ALPA and the Spirit pilots are continuing to do everything possible to help restore the company’s operations, which have experienced significant problems over the past several days.  While we will continue these efforts, we will actively defend the association, its officers and its member pilots against the unwarranted and counterproductive legal action brought by Spirit Airlines.”

By contrast, a Spirit spokesman told the Washington Post and other outlets, "this is a result of unlawful labor activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by canceling multiple flights across our network. These pilots have put their quest for a new contract ahead of getting customers to their destinations and the safety of their fellow Spirit Team Members.”

The airline didn't respond to a request for additional comment from ATTN:. 

Update at 12:45 PM, PST:

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the motion brought by Spirit Airlines for a Temporary Restraining Order against the ALPA, ordering the Spirit pilots to go back to work. In a statement to ATTN:, Spirit claimed the union and pilots were "purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations, leading to hundreds of canceled flights, which has negatively impacted thousands of Spirit customers’ travel plans." 

"We are hopeful that we can put this moment behind us and get back to serving our customers.," the statement added.

The ALPA also issued a statement to ATTN:, saying "the court has spoken and Spirit pilots will fully comply with the order handed down, which is completely in line with our overriding goal: the resumption of normal operations.  We call on the company to join forces with ALPA and the Spirit pilots to do just that.”