Broward County

Canceled flights leave Spirit Airlines passengers brawling in Fort Lauderdale

As a dispute over wages between pilots and Spirit Airlines raged over the past several days, hundreds of flights have been canceled around the nation. In Fort Lauderdale Monday night, tensions finally reached a boiling point.

Hundreds of riled-up passengers swarmed the ticket check-in counter for the airline at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Monday after nine flights were canceled, leaving hundreds stranded. In one cell phone video clip, at least two women start swinging at Broward sheriff’s deputies. Another video shows one of the woman being led away and someone held on the ground by deputies.

Ultimately three people were arrested for disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, trespassing after a warning, and resisting arrest with violence. The situation had calmed down by Tuesday.

Deputies said Desmond Waul, a 22-year-old from New York, was screaming at airline employees, threatening them and challenging them to step outside and fight. According to the arrest report, he was handcuffed “after a physical struggle.” Janice Waul, 24, and a third New Yorker, 22-year-old Devante Garrett, were arrested on the same charges. Their arrest report narratives are the same as Desmond’s.

“The atmosphere which WAUL and co-defendents caused was one that resembled the start of a riot,” deputies wrote.

In a statement from company spokesman Paul Berry, the Miramar-based airline said it was “shocked and saddened” by the videos on social media and pointed the blame at their pilots, with whom the company has been negotiating a new contract for two years.

“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. It is for this reason, Spirit has filed suit in federal court to protect our customers' future travel.”

On Monday, Spirit sued the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents its pilots, in U.S. district court in Fort Lauderdale for causing about 300 flight cancellations and disrupting the travel plans of more than 20,000 passengers due to pilot unavailability. The showdown with the pilots has cost Spirit about $8.5 million in lost revenue.

On Sunday alone, the airline said it was forced to cancel 81 flights because pilots refused to work, or about 17 percent of its scheduled flights for that day, according to the lawsuit. Spirit said in the lawsuit that its pilots are barred from work slowdowns or strikes during collective bargaining negotiations, per the Railway Labor Act, which requires pilots to work about as much as they did prior to negotiations.

By Tuesday afternoon, a judge ruled in favor Spirit and ordered the union to stop interfering with the airline’s operations. The number of total Spirit flight cancellations had gone down to 38, according to flight website FlightAware, by noon Tuesday.

By Tuesday evening, Fort Lauderdale had 10 Spirit flight cancellations, according to airport spokesman Greg Meyer.

Spirit has been engaged in contract negations for the past two years, which became formal in February, and could affect nearly 1,600 Spirit pilots. According to the suit, the two groups have been able to agree on 22 out of the 31 sections of the new agreement, but are still on odds on sections regarding wages.

The Air Line Pilots Association said Spirit pilots are not being paid anywhere near their peers, even as the airline has made a profit for 27 consecutive financial quarters.

The union said in a statement following the ruling that Spirit piolts are “committed” to restoring the company to normal operations.

“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,” the union said in a statement.

The last major strike by airline pilots in recent years was also by Spirit pilots in 2010, when the most recent contract was reached. The five-day strike in June 2010 caused Spirit to cancel all of its flights, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and forced to pay for alternate travel plans.

The contract reached at the time increased hourly wages by an average of 10 percent for captains and 18 percent for first officers and all pilots received a signing bonus.

The current strike is not uncommon, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly, especially when pilots know they are poised for a similar wage hike as in previous contracts.

Spirit knows it will “have to do a deal but the workers are going to be anxious to get the deal done quickly and the airline, although it knows it has to negotiate in good faith, has less incentive to act quickly,” Kaplan said.

In the past, Spirit has struggled to control cancellations and delays for passengers.

In April, the airline ranked second to last on WalletHub’s 2017 ranking of the best and worst airlines, a list that included the 10 largest U.S. carriers and two regional carriers. Spirit earned high marks as the cheapest airline in the bunch, but was about middle of the pack on reliability and had the highest rate of complaints from customers in 2017.

Still, both were improvements over 2016 when the airline was less reliable and saw more complaints.