Spirit Airlines staff clash with passengers after flight cancellations in Florida

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 12:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2017, 8:34am

Yet again, cellphone video has captured a chaotic slice of air travel - this time, on the ground.

Anger and confusion boiled over at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Monday night as nine Spirit Airlines flights were cancelled, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded.

What followed was chaos as frustrated passengers clashed with Spirit employees, and law enforcement officers tried to maintain order.

Video from the airport showed crowds clustered around Spirit Airlines ticket counters, with people pushing, screaming and cursing.

At one point in one of the videos, the stanchions holding in the line were knocked over, and a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy was shoved to the ground. Sheriff’s deputies detained several passengers and charged them with disorderly conduct.

“All of a sudden, one particular flight got cancelled, and a mob ensued up here at the front counter, in front of everyone else who had been waiting in line,” passenger Paul Smith said.

Another passenger told the station that Spirit employees “couldn’t handle what was going on, so they called in for the police.”

The flight cancellations were reportedly the result of a legal dispute between the budget airline and the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA).

In a statement, Spirit Airlines blamed its pilots for the cancellations and the resulting chaos.

About 300 Spirit Airlines flights have been cancelled in the past week, according to CNN.

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“We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place at Ft Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport,” Spirit spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement. “This is a result of unlawful labour activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by cancelling 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.”

Berry said the airline had filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the pilots union and others for “purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations, leading to hundreds of cancelled flights, which has negatively impacted thousands of Spirit customers’ travel plans.”

“So we reluctantly filed this suit to protect our customers’ and our operations,” Berry said. “This is clearly unlawful activity under the Railway Labour Act, which governs labour relations in the airline industry. ALPA and those individuals responsible should be held accountable.”

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ALPA is disputing the airline’s accusations, saying the two 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,” an ALPA representative said in a statement. “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 (Monday) by Spirit Airlines.”

Spirit, a low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida, often advertises fares as low as about US$20 or US$30 each way.

But it had the highest rate of consumer complaints in 2015, the first year the Transportation Department included the airline in its consumer complaints report.

The department showed that 11.73 out of every 100,000 customers who flew Spirit in 2015 filed a complaint against the airline, most related to “flight problems.”

The industry’s overall complaint rate that year was 1.9 per 100,000 fliers.

The mayhem in Fort Lauderdale was the latest in a string of high-profile, airline-related incidents captured on video.

Perhaps the most notorious came in April, when viral videos captured a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The incident caused a public-relations crisis for United, which initially defended itself by stating that the passenger, David Dao, had “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily.”

Dao and United eventually reached an “amicable” settlement for an undisclosed amount, the airline said.

A few weeks after United’s dragging fiasco, American Airlines grounded a flight attendant after a video showed a confrontation between him and a passenger, allegedly after removing a woman’s baby stroller from the plane. Also in late April, a Delta Air Lines passenger said he was kicked off a plane for using the restroom; a few days later, a video emerged showing a Delta pilot hitting a passenger on the Jetway in Atlanta. The airline said the pilot was trying to break up a fight.

Earlier this month, a Southern California father posted video showing him and his family getting booted from a Delta flight after refusing to give up a seat for their toddler. They had bought the seat for their teenage son and were attempting to use it for his 2-year-old sibling.

The airline eventually apologised and offered a refund and “additional compensation.”

Deep into this season of viral air-travel incidents, several airline executives came to Washington, where they got a brutal lashing on Capitol Hill last week.

Congressional panellists grilled United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives about unpopular policies that have infuriated customers and spawned viral videos, such as overbooked flights, hidden charges and absurdly confusing contracts.

The result, according to Representative Michael Capuano, is “lowered expectations” that lead many to believe that flying is “a horrible experience.”

“We’re all sick of it,” Capuano added.

By the end of the four-hour hearing - which also included statements from executives at American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines - Capuano’s surprisingly candid language was among the tamest blows that airline executives absorbed. The lawmakers’ collective message: Fix your airlines, or expect to hear back from us.