Union Tells Pilots to Nix Spirit Airlines Flight Stoppage

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – The Air Line Pilots Association union on Tuesday directed its members to comply with a federal judge’s temporary restraining order to cease concerted attempts to interfere with Spirit Airlines’ operations.

The ruling came in the wake of a pilot work stoppage that impacted an estimated 20,000 passengers. In response, the union sent a notice out to Spirit Airlines pilots, directing them to comply with Judge William Dimitrouleas’ restraining order, which prohibits organized efforts to continue the work stoppage.

“Under order of the Court, we must immediately resume normal flight operations,” the union’s letter reads.

The work stoppage stemmed from Spirit pilots’ dispute with the airline over their employment contract terms and pay rates.

Negotiations to amend the pilots’ collective bargaining agreement became increasingly contentious leading into late April.  The pilots’ negotiating committee wants a pay package competitive with legacy airlines like Delta and United, while Spirit has stressed that it has to rein in expenses given its position as an “ultra-low cost carrier.”

The union yesterday noted that failure to comply with the restraining order against the work stoppage could result in fines and sanctions against pilots. The prospect of contempt proceedings “will place great power in the hands of management and the Courts over our conduct as pilots, and as a union,” the letter to the Spirit pilots reads.

“We must demonstrate that we mean business: we will get this operation back to normal (whether we agree or not with the Company or with the Court), and we will solve our problems at the bargaining table (while continuing to demand that the Company do the same),” the letter says.

The union was required by the court to send out the compliance notice by 5 pm today.

Before the restraining order was issued, pilots had been ramping up pressure on the airline by widely refusing to take on so-called “open time” flight assignments outside their preset work schedules.

Spirit says that while pilots are not required under the collective bargaining contract to take on the open time flights, it is standard practice to do so. It claims that like many other airlines, it relies on pilots to field these overtime flights, in order to keep operations running smooth.

Spirit claims that the work stoppage cost it $8.5 million and caused roughly 300 flight cancellations, along with chaos at its check in lines. On May 7, the airline had to cancel 17 percent of its scheduled flying for the day, Spirit says.

Passenger frustration reached a fever pitch early this week at Spirit hub Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, as a brawl broke out in a Spirit check-in area amid tension over flight cancellations. Passengers were seen in a viral video shoving law enforcement officers, one of whom tumbled over a stanchion post.

Spirit filed a lawsuit against the union in the federal court in Fort Lauderdale on May 8, arguing the pilots violated the Railway Labor Act by condoning the “illegal work stoppage.”

“The RLA not only prohibits [the union] from instigating or encouraging a work slowdown which alters the status quo during collective bargaining, it also requires that [the union] make all reasonable efforts to prevent or stop a slowdown that is occurring even if the union did not instigate the slowdown,” the lawsuit reads. “[The union] has utterly failed to meet its obligation under the RLA.”

According to Spirit, pilots who were resistant to the work stoppage were being harassed and berated by their peers.

One Spirit pilot, responding to a crew scheduling request, purportedly said in a phone  call  that “the pilot group has taken the hostilities and the harassment of anybody picking up open time to an extreme level.”

“I would come in and fly, but it literally has gotten to the point of people threatening physical violence,” the pilot allegedly said.

A website was put up by an anonymous party, dedicated to insulting Spirit pilots who had broken from the group and taken on open time flight assignments, Spirit says. The website, which has since been taken down,  stated “these people don’t give a shit about you or your family.” It also included a section titled “Whores of the Week” which listed the number of hours flown by a Spirit pilot.

Spirit also claims that the union took direct action to encourage pilots to slow work and stop accepting flights outside their fixed schedule. The airline lawsuit points to a local union council communication in late April, wherein  the usual union sign-off was altered from its customary “Fly Safe, Fly Your Contract,” adding “Fly Your Schedule.”

The union has maintained throughout the recent collective-bargaining negotiations that Spirit pilots are getting shafted on their pay rates.

“Since we started current negotiations in February 2015, the company has made more than $642 million in net profits,” Capt. Stuart Morrison, chairman of the Spirit unit of the union, said in April, shortly before the widespread flight cancellations that garnered national media attention. “While pilots at comparable airlines have seen substantial improvements in compensation, our pilots continue to work under a seven-year old agreement that puts us well below the industry-standard.”

“Spirit management continues to drag its heels and create labor uncertainty as we enter the busy summer travel season,” Capt. Morrison said. “Spirit pilots are demanding a contract that provides industry-standard compensation and a long-term future for this airline—and Spirit continues to show it can well afford it.”

The temporary restraining order, issued Tuesday, will be in place until further notice from the court.

The court scheduled a May 15 hearing wherein the union can challenge the order. The judge will also hear argument on Spirit’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Citing Delta Air Lines Inc. v. Air Line Pilots Association, the judge noted a temporary restraining order was appropriate “because Spirit is likely to succeed on the merits of its claims that Defendants are violating the [Railway Labor Act], and because immediate, substantial and irreparable damage, injury or loss will result to Spirit before a hearing on its request for a [preliminary injunction] can be had.”

“It further appears that unless such activity is restrained, the travel plans of large numbers of Plaintiff’s customers will be disrupted, and the public will be deprived of transportation services, causing serious and substantial damage to the public interest,” the judge’s order reads.

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