Spirit Airlines pilot pay dispute behind airport brawl

The brawl at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport may have shocked thousands of Spirit Airlines customers, but it stems from two years of friction between the discount carrier and its pilots. 

Spirit (SAVE) pilots started negotiations for a new contract in February 2015, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, a union for more than 55,000 pilots in the U.S. and Canada. The union contends that Spirit earns above-average profits but pays pilots at a rate that puts them "at the bottom of the industry," while also asking for concessions on pay and benefit increases.

While those contract issues serve as the backdrop to the brawl, both sides are playing the blame game for more than 150 canceled Spirit flights over the last two days. The carrier has filed a lawsuit accusing its pilots of engaging in an "illegal slowdown in order to bring pressure on Spirit during current negotiations," while the pilots union denies the allegation.

The union and "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," the union said in a statement sent to CBS MoneyWatch. 

Spirit Airlines didn't immediately return a request for comment.

Spirit alleges its pilots are snubbing "junior assignment" and "open time" flying, leading to scheduling problems. Spirit pilots set their flying schedules a month in advance, but leave some time unscheduled for "open time" flying. The airline then relies on that time in case pilots get sick or can't make a trip. Junior assignments actually pay double the regular pilot rate, and are offered to pilots who are scheduled to be off duty but in reverse seniority order, the lawsuit notes. 

"Since on or about May 1, 2017, the company has experienced a significant decline in the number of pilots picking up open time and/or accepting junior assignments, which has forced the company to cancel approximately 300 flights due to pilot unavailability from May 1 - May 7, adversely impacting thousands of customers," Spirit's suit alleges.  

Whatever the cause, the delays, cancellations and the airport fight aren't likely to improve Spirit's sagging reputation, which is already at rock-bottom with customers. Spirit ranked as the least-liked airline in this year's air carrier ranking by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures satisfaction with issues ranging from price to customer service.

Spirit's management is aware of the problem. CEO Robert Fornaro conceded in an April 28 conference call to discuss its latest earnings that "improving the brand will take much longer than improving the service levels."

Spirit also has tried to use humor to defuse the hostility, running a tongue-in-cheek "State of the Hate" report in 2014. The airline asked customers to document what they hated about the company, offering 8,000 frequent flier miles to complete a survey (The most-hated aspect of flying Spirit: the seats.)

Yet improving its service won't be easy for an airline built on the concept of low fares, which Spirits markets as "bare fares." But to receive anything else -- even a pre-assigned seat or a boarding pass printed at the terminal -- customers must pay a fee.

That low-cost philosophy is carried over to its operations, with the airline touting a philosophy of "Spend it like it's your own." In an investor presentation earlier this year, the airline noted that it has a lower cost per available seat mile, a measure of airline efficiency, then five competing airlines, including JetBlue (JBLU) and Southwest (LUV). 

Whatever the cause of the most recent disruption, it's costing Spirit plenty, and not only in lost customer goodwill. 

On May 7, the carrier canceled 81 flights, or about 17 percent of its scheduled flights that day, according to the lawsuit. All together, more than 300 flights have been canceled, causing delays and disruptions for more than 20,000 customers, at a cost of $8.5 million. The hubbub is also denting Spirit's stock price, which was down nearly 5 percent on Tuesday, to $54.80.

Some Spirit customers said they weren't in an understanding mood. 

Passenger Veronica McCabe told CBS News, "I think that it's all about money and I think that they shouldn't have been booking flights. They should have told us from the beginning that this was going on."