Saturday, August 16, 2008

Labor tensions grow between Spirit Airlines and its pilots

Spirit Airlines A319Spirit Airlines had to cancel a number of flights earlier this week. Miami-Ft. Lauderdale station CBS 4 reported that the airline attributed the cancellations to "a combination of bad weather, pilots not wanting to work overtime, and 'operation issues' that they say caused a domino effect of canceled flights."

Meanwhile, the pilots' union said it's not the pilots' fault. Here is what the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) had to say on August 12, 2008 about the situation:
"The situation at Spirit Airlines has been deteriorating, and today’s flight cancellations are just one more indication of management’s inability to manage its operations effectively during this turbulent time for the airline industry. Despite management’s attempt to pin the blame on pilots for recent flight cancellations, a more accurate explanation can be placed on management’s decision to downsize the pilot group by 30 percent without corresponding adjustments in its fleet and flight schedule.

"In mid-July, the company announced that it had furloughed 45 pilots with an additional 70-plus pilots to be furloughed in September. However, the company has yet to scale back its operations or number of flights to compensate for the loss of pilots. In order to cover the gap, Spirit management has chosen to violate its contract with the pilots by refusing to obey by staffing and scheduling provisions.

"Management’s new rules have left most Spirit pilots maxed-out on the number of flight hours they can fly under Federal law. It has also made it nearly impossible for pilots to take on additional flying that would satisfy the number of flights operated by Spirit Airlines."
Fast forward a couple of days to August 14. Now we learn from ALPA that Spirit Airlines is harassing any pilot who calls in sick or fatigued. ALPA says that Spirit pilots who call in sick are facing "invasive investigations and possible disciplinary actions."

The union cites an instance in which a pilot called in sick and was required to take an ambulance to a company-selected doctor for examination. The doctor confirmed that the pilot was indeed sick and gave the pilot a note declaring that he shouldn’t fly for five days because of his medical condition. Nonetheless, the company subsequently "issued a harassing notice of investigation to the pilot in reaction to his sick call," says ALPA.

ALPA says that Spirit Airlines pilots are not engaging in any kind of organized "sick-in." Capt. Sean Creed, MEC chair of the Spirit unit of ALPA, said, "As in any other profession, employees get sick, and are permitted to stay home to recover. Any reputable company respects the need for sick time—without making unwarranted and absurd accusations that the employees are conspiring against the company."

So let's see, we have an airline that reduced its pilot force, but not its flying schedule. That probably means the only way the schedule can be maintained is if no pilots are ever absent from their assigned trips for any reason -- including being genuinely sick, or just too tired to fly safely. Fewer pilots on the same number of trips also suggests that the airline is relying on pilots to volunteer frequently to pick up extra trips on what should be their days off. This sounds like poor manpower planning at the least, and pilot pushing at worst. Sooner or later some pilots are going to get sick, or burned out with exhaustion.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, it's because Spirit Airlines is hardly the only carrier to engage in this practice of pressuring crews to come to work, even if they are ill or fatigued. Let's hope that Spirit Airlines refrains from going the route of United Airlines, which recently filed suit against its pilots. In that case, United also crabbed about pilots working according to the terms of their valid contract, and refusing to pick up extra trips on their legal days off.

Earth to airline management: Pilots sometimes get sick. They very often get tired. They aren't required to fly on their days off -- that's why they're called days off. If you have fewer pilots than needed to fly the schedule, that's not the pilots' fault.

[Photo Source]