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Spirit Airlines pilot strike could strand thousands of vacationers

Spirit Airlines pilots went on strike Saturday. Thousands of vacationers could be impacted.

The Spirit Airlines pilot strike threatens to disrupt the travel plans for thousands of vacationers. Spirit flies from several airports in the eastern U.S., through Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to points in the Caribbean and Latin America.

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Spirit Airlines pilots went on strike Saturday in a dispute over pay, and the discount carrier immediately canceled all of its flights for the day.

The walkout and cancellations threatened to disrupt the travel plans for thousands of vacationers. Spirit flies from several airports in the eastern U.S., through Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to points in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Spirit is the largest single carrier at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Its tickets aren't good on other carriers, and two cruise ships full of passengers headed home were expected to dock nearby on Saturday.

"As you can imagine, it's probably going to be a very busy day," said Greg Meyer, a spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He said more than 5,000 passengers arrive and depart on Spirit at the airport each day.

Spirit said it was refunding fares for Saturday flights plus a $100 credit toward future flights. As recently as Tuesday it had said it was "partnering with other air carrier providers to continue to serve our customers." It didn't immediately announce plans for its Sunday flights.

Pilots could have walked out as early as midnight Friday, but kept talking under the guidance of the National Mediation Board in Washington until about 5 a.m. EDT.

The extensions were "in order to review final proposals put forth by both parties to keep the airline running. In the end, both sides could not reach an agreement," said Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and the head of the airline's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, in a statement on the union's website.

He said pilots "will not return to the cockpit until a fair and equitable contract is negotiated."

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Spirit pilots have said their pay lags competitors such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue. The two sides have been in negotiations for more than three years.

The company said it offered to raise pilot pay by 30 percent over five years. It would have included work rule changes but would have retained a four-day break between every pilot trip, something the company said no other ALPA contract has. The offer also included a $3,000 signing bonus and a larger retirement plan match.

"We are frustrated and disappointed that our pilots have turned down an over 30 percent increase at a cost of over $70 million over five years while disrupting thousands of our customers and jeopardizing the livelihoods of our over 2,000 employees," Spirit President and CEO Ben Baldanza said in a written statement.

Privately held Spirit runs roughly 150 flights a day, making it much smaller than major carriers like Delta Air Lines Inc., with 6,200. But from Fort Lauderdale it's the only carrier to 14 international cities and five U.S. destinations, Meyer said. That means travelers trying to reach those cities could be stuck.

The Miramar, Fla.-based airline has about 440 active pilots. It dubs itself an ultra low-cost carrier, and says some of its tickets go for $9. It attracted notice recently when it announced that beginning Aug. 1 it would charge passengers up to $45 for carry-on bags.

Air carrier strikes are rare. The last one at a major carrier was in 2005, when Northwest Airlines mechanics walked off the job rather than accept deep pay cuts. The strike failed after Northwest replaced them.


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