Spirit Airlines: Why a Threatened Pilot Strike Could Take the Company Down

Last Updated May 20, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

Spirit Airlines and its pilots have been engaged in a long battle over a pilot contract, and it seems to be coming to a head. The National Mediation Board has declared an impasse, which means the pilots have a 30 day cooling off period before they're allowed to strike. This may not sound logical to you, but the threat of a strike at Spirit has a far greater chance of blowing a hole in the company than a strike threat at one of the large legacy carriers.

Spirit's pilots aren't exactly the highest paid of the bunch, but that's to be expected for an airline that prides itself on being an ultra low cost carrier. That being said, the company actually doesn't compare too poorly when it comes to pay. In fact, here's how their A319 pilots stack up against A319 pilots at other airlines.

Hourly Pay Rates
Airline 1st Year First Officer 10th Year Captain
Spirit $40 $125
Frontier $37 $146
Virgin America $44 $120
United $33 $134
US Airways East $25 $122
US Airways West $39 $135
Of course, it's not just about pay. It's also about work rules, benefits, etc. and that's a huge issue here. You can read more about it on the surprisingly slick Spirit pilots website. (Warning: complete and total overuse of Flash.)

On June 12 at midnight, the pilots are allowed to walk off the job and I won't be surprised in the least if that happens. There's a lot of posturing on both sides right now. Management has sent layoff notices to just about everyone, explaining that if the pilots strike, the airline might just disappear completely. Meanwhile, the pilots act like they're doing a service for their passengers by putting up billboards in key cities saying a strike might be coming and that passengers should check with the airline for details. Yeah, I'm sure this isn't an attempt to garner sympathy, right?

So it appears that we're headed on a collision course here, but you might be saying, "at least it's not United or Delta" or something like that right? I beg to differ. I think this has the potential to be more damaging.

Delta and United/Continental are now becoming so large and so important to the nation's infrastructure that I just can't imagine them ever being allowed to strike. The government has the ability to prevent strikes if necessary, and if Delta and United/Continental got to that point, I just don't think the feds would be willing to let it happen. So for the big guys, strike threats seem to be more about posturing than creating actual damage.

A little airline like Spirit, however, is hardly vital to our nation's transportation system. Sure, it provides good service down through the Caribbean, but a strike wouldn't hurt the country that much. It could, however, be devastating for the airline. So the damage from a strike like this could be long-lasting, if not permanent, whereas I don't see anything similar getting to that point with the mega-carriers that are out there today.

Origin photo via Flickr user John Edwards 2008