The Problems at Spirit Airlines Are So Bad They Threw the Fort Lauderdale Airport Into Chaos

A Spirit Airlines plane enjoying more peaceful times in St. Paul, Minnesota

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

A noisy brawl broke out between airline passengers and police at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport after Spirit Airlines abruptly canceled nine flights on Monday night, stranding hundreds of travelers.

Dramatic cellphone video of the confrontation, captured by several eyewitnesses and posted to Twitter, shows an angry crowd of reportedly 500 passengers screaming at and scuffling with about 15 uniformed police officers and Spirit airline employees at the front ticket counter. According to CBS Miami, the dispute broke out after the airline’s unexpected cancellations left passengers waiting at their gates—and others already seated on their plane—in the lurch. Among them was Spirit Flight 710, bound for LaGuardia. One passenger, 18-year-old Brionka Halbert, told NBC News that airport attendants informed passengers that they would have 28 minutes to board or the flight would be canceled. But 20 minutes later Spirit canceled the flight and directed passengers en masse to the front desk.

After hours of delays, tensions boiled over. “We waited two to three hours at the front desk [for] our tickets to be refunded. It got rowdy.” As another passenger, Cindy Matthews Beard, recounted to CNN:

Everyone was already aggravated about flight delays and the ridiculousness of standing in such a long line for hours, which Spirit Airlines did nothing to help, and then in walks these people off their flight raising a ruckus (and) cussing and screaming and they went straight to the counter.

Citing records from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, Time reports that three passengers were arrested late Monday night after they allegedly caused the assembled crowd “to become enraged, fearful or visually upset,” yelled at Spirit employees, and “challenged them to step outside to fight.” The trio, two men and a woman from New York, has been charged with inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and trespassing.

Halbert describes “excessive force” and “police brutality” from the officers in attendance. “The cops went about it in the wrong away even if they were trying to do the right thing,” she related to NBC, later tweeting footage of the incident:

With no place to go, Halbert and other stranded travelers made camp on the floor of the airport’s Terminal 4, according to NBC Miami. Some were still there as of 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

But the airport altercation is only one skirmish in Spirit’s war, its customers’ discomfort a kind of collateral damage. According to a federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Florida on Tuesday morning, the Miramar-based airline is accusing the Air Line Pilots Association, an AFL-CIO-affiliated labor union that represents more than 55,000 American and Canadian pilots, of arranging a pilot shortage and forcing Spirit to cancel flights to “purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations” as retribution over ongoing pilot contract disputes.

In response to the Fort Lauderdale fracas, Spirit officials quickly passed the buck, blaming the incident on ALPA’s truant pilots. “This is a result of unlawful activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by canceling multiple flights across our network,” read a statement from Spirit spokesman Paul Berry. “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.”

ALPA denied any wrongdoing, telling CBS News that Spirit’s lawsuit amounted to “unwarranted and counterproductive legal action.” In a statement to the Washington Post, an ALPA representative added, “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 (Monday) by Spirit Airlines.”

Spirit alleges that ALPA urged or threatened pilots to turn down so-called open time flights, leading to a spike in flights canceled for want of pilots. It remains unclear whether ALPA played a role in the cancellations, but CNN reports that the union anticipated legal trouble from Spirit as early as Friday, when ALPA leadership warned members that “pilots who want to pick up open time should do so and not be questioned because, under the present circumstances, performing such flying is in all of our interest and supports our long-term objective of substantially improving pay and working conditions for the members.”

“If Spirit’s operations continue to deteriorate and are not restored quickly we will be subject to litigation, which will undermine our bargaining efforts and delay our timeline,” the memo went on to say. Responding to the discount airline’s first-quarter earnings report last month, Capt. Stuart Morrison, the chairman of the Spirit unit of ALPA, stated in a press release that Spirit pilots “continue to work under a seven-year old agreement that puts us well below the industry-standard.” According to its website, the union is agitating for higher pay rates for pilots in light of recent upticks in wages at Spirit rivals including Delta, American, United, Hawaiian, Southwest, and JetBlue. (Coincidentally, a picket complete with sign-toting Spirit pilots took place at the Fort Lauderdale airport last year.*)

Spirit and ALPA have been at it since 2015, per CNN, but multiple contract negotiations have so far failed to produce an agreement. According to the lawsuit, Spirit has canceled about 300 flights in the past week alone. Eighty-one of them were scheduled for Sunday, amounting to around 17 percent of the company’s flights for the day. The company estimates that the cancellations have affected some 20,000 customers.

The ongoing ALPA negotiations number among an array of factors that have placed Spirit on financial tenterhooks. According to Marketwatch, Spirit’s offer last month to bolster “pilot wages, retirement benefits, and profit-sharing” by 30 percent would have cost the company $1.9 billion. And Yahoo Finance reports that the airline’s valuation has steadily declined since the start of 2014, and last year its growth was projected well behind that of rivals like Southwest and JetBlue. In April, the American Customer Satisfaction Index annual survey on air travel ranked Spirit last for the third year straight.

Spirit’s current woes are the latest entry in a pretty dismal few weeks for the airline industry, which has elicited more and more public ire following several high-profile incidents involving passengers and police. Early last month, footage of a ticketed passenger being forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight by officers from the Chicago Police Department sparked outrage. Delta drew flak last week after it booted a family with two young children from a flight following a seating mix-up. And on Monday the owners of a giant rabbit named Simon who they allege died after being placed in a freezer for 16 hours on a United flight from London to Chicago announced they were seeking damages from the company.

*Correction, May 10: This blog post originally described Spirit pilots as having participated in a strike in 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. They picketed but did not strike.