Spirit Airlines Operations Collapse, Thousands Left Stranded, Hundreds of Flights Cancelled, Employees Flee Airport, According To Passengers
Just days after reporting a $287.9 million USD quarterly loss, Florida-based Ultra-Low-Cost carrier Spirit Air is cancelling hundreds of flights leaving thousands of passengers stranded and causing bedlam & chaos at domestic and international destinations.
According to FlightAware, cancellations and delays disrupted 71% of Spirit’s Monday schedule, and Sunday saw 60% of its schedule canceled or delayed.
Colombia: As of publication time on August 3, Spirit flights (all from Fort Lauderdale) 237 & 676 to Medellín were delayed. 651 to Armenia (Colombia) was canceled, 859 to Cartagena was canceled, but 807 to Bogotá was listed as in-flight.
Last Wednesday, Spirit’s CEO Ted Christie told investors: “We remain very well-positioned to stimulate markets and capture the significant market opportunities in the domestic US and near-field international marketplace” despite the mammoth financial loss, but today thousands of travelers are left without recourse. Police were called to San Juan, Puerto Rico after Spirit employees apparently fled the terminal, escaping angry passengers. Industry sources tell Finance Colombia a flight destined for Puerto Rico was diverted or cancelled because the Puerto Rico airport had become “unsafe” due to mad travelers.
Spirit gate and ticketing staff are overwhelmed and unable to deal with the thousands of frustrated passengers, many of whom have been stranded in airports beyond 24 hours. At first, Spirit said delays were due to weather, but other airlines are not facing the same systemic issues. Spirit issued a travel alert via their website stating: “Travel Advisory: We are experiencing operational challenges in some areas of our network, please check your email and flight status before going to the airport. Due to long lines at the airport, the fastest way for assistance is to click here and select Let’s Chat.”
Meanwhile in SJU San Juan airport waiting for Spirit flight with no updates since 11am now cancelled 12 hours later 😳 pic.twitter.com/fB1jZAkGFM
— Christopher Slocum (@ChrisSlocum_RN) August 2, 2021
Rumors of a strike are circulating across traditional and social media channels, but Spirit’s flight attendants’ union denies there is a formal labor action. The AFA said in a written statement yesterday: “Spirit Airlines is experiencing operational issues causing flight delays and cancellations due to weather, schedule month change over, and IT outages. A few news outlets have incorrectly reported that this may be due to a strike. This is not true. There is no flight attendant strike. Crews are not the issue. Management is proactively cancelling flights today to recover the operation and prevent further disruption for passengers.”
Industry executives in the US with knowledge of the matter explained to Finance Colombia that Spirit pilots are not on a formal strike, but morale issues may be causing an informal revolt as pilots have been pushed to the limits with regards to overtime and workload. Spirit has been rapidly expanding its route network and taking deliveries of new aircraft in the midst of a pilot shortage. Many airlines paused recruiting and training of new pilots during the COVID pandemic in 2020, leaving them unprepared for the current surge in discretionary travel. Spirit also lacks a network of agreements with competitor airlines to reroute passengers in the event of cancellations.
“We almost went out of our way to poke the customer in the eye. And once a business gets more competitive, you can’t do that anymore,”—Former Spirit Airlines CEO Bob Fornaro
It can take up to 10 pilots per aircraft to keep a narrow-body aircraft like the Airbus A320s that Spirit flies fully utilized. All airlines in the US are facing this issue of pilot shortages, the executive said, leading to American Airlines’ massive proactive flight cancellations earlier this summer, as an example.
A sign of things to come?
As Spirit and other airlines battle to poach pilots from the regional carriers, the traditional pipeline of fresh commercial pilots leaving the US Air Force & Navy is no longer producing enough airmen to replace existing pilots, or to add pilots in the midst of significant growth among airlines. The same challenges leading to Spirit’s operational fiasco may soon spread across the industry. As a sign of things to come, United Airlines upped its new plane order to 120 A321 Airbus aircraft, while placing an order for 200 Boeing 737 Max aircraft last month. All these new planes will need new pilots, airframe & powerplant mechanics, ground crew, gate agents, and administrative staff. Over the past weekend, American Airlines also canceled over 270 flights, or approximately 9% of its schedule, with at least 120 flights canceled due to lack of crew. Thunderstorms did affect the Dallas, Texas metropolitan area over the weekend, affecting American Airlines, and also Southwest Airlines, who had over 1,000 flights delayed, but only 44 cancelled, due to thunderstorms, said the low-cost carrier. While all cancellations and delays inevitably frustrate passengers, Spirit seems to lack the customer service infrastructure to deal with itinerary adjustments, passenger care, and even the basic communications of the larger, more mature carriers.
Airline industry observers remember the forced resignation of JetBlue founder and then-CEO David Neeleman after the airline’s infamous 2007 “Valentine’s Day Massacre” that saw passengers stranded on the runways of New York’s JFK International Airport for up to 11 hours that February 14. While the airline canceled half of its 500 scheduled flights that day, and over 1,000 that week, it was not the cancellations that led to Neeleman’s dismissal—after all, snowstorms & icing conditions happen, and safety must always take priority—but JetBlue’s failure to adequately communicate with and take care of passengers that had been stranded, delayed, or trapped on an aircraft going nowhere for several hours. Shortly after the debacle, Allen Adamson of public relations agency Landor Associates told Forbes: “It’s easier to be different as a small company. That worked for many years, but when [JetBlue] became a big airline, its operations could not live up to delivering its brand experience because the company was built around a different philosophy.”
Spirit Airlines’ on-time performance in Q2, 2021 was 78.3% with a load factor of 84.4%. The company reported a $288 million USD quarterly loss on $859.3 million in revenues, and $2.2 billion USD of cash on hand.
Aircraft safety and maintenance is highly regulated, and all FAR Part 121 carriers (regularly scheduled airlines) must meet strict standards, however customer service responsiveness is not regulated, and airlines adhere to wildly varying standards and philosophies. Some airlines that attempt to provide the bare minimum of passenger support may find the policy backfiring on them as it both damages the brand and destroys morale of those support staff left to face angry mobs. Even ostensibly full-service airlines that don’t pay attention to passenger experience may suffer. Avianca won a battle with its pilot’s union only to lose the war as many pilots quit and others wouldn’t show up after a nasty labor dispute. The extensive disruptions led passengers to flee the airline that soon filed for bankruptcy. United Airlines remains infamous for beating up doctors and guitars.
Annnnd I am so glad that I made a conscious decision to never fly #SpiritAirlines again!😦 Spirit Airlines Collapses: Riots Break Out As Agents Told To Flee Airports For Their Own Safety https://t.co/5TNkdG2T0D
— The PlatinumLifestyle Coach (@PlatinumLife4U) August 3, 2021
Spirit Airlines already has a reputation as a bare-bones carrier; nothing is wrong with that. But scheduling flights it does not have the resources to fly and making commitments to passengers, some stranded internationally, that it cannot keep cannot be justified. Perhaps Spirit is counting on passengers having a short memory, but frequent travelers still remember Spirit’s attitude towards the Vietnam veteran with terminal cancer almost a decade ago.
Airlines flying in the US generally don’t have to provide accommodations for passengers due to reasons beyond their control, such as weather, but are responsible for passenger care when flights are delayed or canceled due to “operational issues.” This can tempt airlines to blame weather when there are other reasons for schedule disruptions. In the current case, it does not appear that Spirit has the necessary human resources to adequately attend to the stranded and disrupted passengers, either at the airports, or via customer contact infrastructure.
“What this is about is consistent focus on execution. That starts with the schedule and the network, and then it goes into the delivery of that product, which means the reliability of your crew network and your airplanes. We’re well under way; we still have room to do better and we know that.”– Spirit CEO Ted Christie in a 2018 interview with AP
Under long-time CEO Ben Baldanza, Spirit had a poor reputation for both on-time performance and customer service. Baldanza was abruptly replaced by Robert Fornaro in 2016 who admitted as much. “We ran a very successful financial business, but we ran a very poor consumer business. For the most part, you can only do that for a short period of time. We almost went out of our way to poke the customer in the eye. And once a business gets more competitive, you can’t do that anymore,” Fornaro told travel industry publication Skift in 2017. Spirit has been on a very aggressive expansion plan, for example going from zero flights out of Miami International Airport to 30 in just 3 months. During the 2nd quarter of this year, the airline added new flights from New York LaGuardia to Los Angeles, Nashville, and San Juan, Puerto Rico along with flights from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos, México. From Kansas City, it added flights to Louisville, Kentucky, Pensacola, Florida, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee Wisconsin.
Is Spirit growing in an uncontrolled manner, outstripping its ability to add and train crew and overwhelming its already spartan customer service infrastructure? Current CEO and former CFO Ted Christie replaced Fornaro in January of 2019 but had been with the airline since 2012. Whether fair or not, financial types don’t often have the reputation for a customer focus, and low-cost airlines are famous for their obsession with operating costs. Has Spirit Airlines failed to invest when it comes to its customer service infrastructure, or is this a one-time operational blip? Flight cancellations are operational, but the apparent on-the-ground lack of preparation, response, and infrastructure point to deeper problems.
What recourse do passengers have?
According to the US Department of Transportation, In the following situations, passengers are entitled to a refund of the ticket price and/or associated fees:
- Cancelled Flight – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to travel.
- Schedule Change/Significant Delay – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.
- DOT has not specifically defined what constitutes a “significant delay.” Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.
- Class of Service Change – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the passenger was involuntarily moved to a lower class of service. For example, if the passenger purchased a first-class ticket and was downgraded to economy class due to an aircraft swap, the passenger is owed the difference in fares.
- Optional Service Fees – A passenger is entitled to a refund of fees paid for an optional service (for example, baggage fees, seat upgrades, or in-flight Wi-Fi) if the passenger was unable to use the optional service due to a flight cancellation, delay, schedule change, or a situation where the passenger was involuntarily denied boarding.
- Note: In situations where you have purchased an optional service and that amenity either does not work or is not available on the flight, you may need to notify the airline of the problem to receive a refund.
- Baggage Fees – A passenger is entitled to a refund if the passenger paid a baggage fee and his or her baggage has been declared lost by the airline.
Cancelling a Ticket Reservation or Purchase within 24 hours of Booking
- For airline tickets that are purchased at least seven days before a flight’s scheduled departure date and time, airlines are required to either:
- allow passengers to cancel their reservation and receive a full refund without a penalty for 24 hours, or
- allow passengers to reserve a ticket (place it on hold) at the quoted price without paying for the ticket for 24 hours
Consumers in the US who believe an airline is not honoring its commercial commitments may sumit their case to the Department of Transportation here (click).