Florida Airport Falls Into Disarray After Spirit Flights Canceled

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

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By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Spirit Airlines Inc passengers brawled in a Florida airport late on Monday after the budget carrier, which is in dispute with its pilots, canceled several flights.

The cancellations, which sparked chaos that ended with three arrests at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, were the latest of about 300 the airline has made in the past week alone.

The Florida-based carrier blames the cancellations on what it called an illegal work slowdown by its pilots, which it says has disrupted 20,000 customers’ flights and cost the company $8.5 million in revenue.

Spirit’s shares were down 3 percent at $55.67 in afternoon trading on Tuesday in a broadly flat market.

Footage of the fights spread widely on social media, creating the latest in a string of public relations headaches for U.S. airlines.

“We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place,” Spirit spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement.

Airlines found themselves the focus of customer anger a month ago after video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off a flight in Chicago went viral. The passenger later reached a settlement with United.

American Airlines Group Inc later came under fire after a video emerged showing an onboard clash over a baby stroller.

Last week, Delta Air Lines Inc apologized after a couple with two toddlers were kicked off an overbooked flight.

Congress hauled top airline executives in front of a House of Representatives committee hearing last week to face questions about their customer service, although lawmakers stopped short of proposing any legislation.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said an internal labor dispute was a poor excuse for Spirit’s mistreatment of customers.

“Need for Passenger Bill of Rights couldn’t be clearer – to restore confidence, ensure fair treatment, and take airlines like Spirit to task,” Blumenthal tweeted.


Spirit has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop its pilots “purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations.”

On Tuesday, a court issued a temporary restraining order forcing its union pilots to return to work.

“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,” the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Spirit’s pilots, said in a statement on Tuesday.

At least 11 Spirit flights were canceled at Fort Lauderdale airport on Monday and 31 delayed, according to FlightAware data.

Broward County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the incident at the airport as about 500 passengers became irate, police said. Video showed travelers fighting each other and falling to the ground as security officials tried to restrain them.

Three people were arrested for threatening to harm airline employees and challenging them to fight, police said, adding the trio had made the crowd become “increasingly aggressive.”

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney and Alana Wise; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Rigby)