Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spirit Airlines -- At war with its crews?

by B. N. Sullivan

Spirit Airlines A321The management at Spirit Airlines has managed to tick off both its pilots and its flight attendants this week -- badly enough that the unions representing both groups have come out publicly in their defense. Yesterday the pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), announced their rejection of the airline's latest contract proposal, which they say demands "harsh concessions" in pay, benefits and work rules. Then earlier today, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), representing Spirit's cabin crew, issued a scathing statement accusing the airline's management of offensive advertising practices that demean and degrade flight attendants.

The Pilots

Many pilots at Spirit Airlines believe their contract already is the worst in the U.S. airline industry, but the latest tipping point comes in the wake of the airline's recently announced plans plans to expand service in the Caribbean and U.S. The pilots are incensed that, at the same time the company plans to spend millions on expansion, the latest contract proposal offered to the pilots calls for $5.8 million in concessions, "with additional concessions imposed if dramatic cuts to benefits are taken into account."

"The company has repeatedly asked the pilot group to fund their blunders and now they want us to finance their expansions," said Captain Sean Creed, chairman of ALPA's Spirit Airlines unit. "We want this company to succeed and grow, but not at the cost of our families and our careers."

In addition, says ALPA, the new proposal states that pilots who are injured while on duty would be ineligible for worker’s compensation unless they can show that they are incapable of performing any job at the company "from secretary to janitor." Captain upgrades would also "be based on management’s subjective assessment of the pilot’s personality." If this is so, who can blame the pilots for losing their patience?

The Flight Attendants

The flight attendants -- whose contract negotiations recently resumed after many months of stagnation -- are insulted and angry that they are being asked to become "walking billboards" by wearing inflight aprons bearing the logos of alcoholic beverages. I see their point:
"Turning flight attendants into walking billboards is unacceptable," said Deborah Crowley, AFA-CWA Spirit President. "The proposed aprons diminish the primary and federally mandated role of flight attendants as safety professionals and our role as first responders onboard."

Flight attendants have a statutory obligation to enforce Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations regarding intoxicated passengers. Inflight aprons that prominently display a logo from an alcoholic beverage company send the wrong signal to passengers and diminish the ability of flight attendants to enforce vital safety and security regulations and procedures onboard.
The flight attendants also take issue with recent advertising that they see as degrading and demeaning. (I have seen the sleazy, sophomoric ads, and believe me, the flight attendants are not imagining things!)
"I feel as though I have entered a time warp and am reliving the battles for respect and justice for women that we fought for 40 years ago," said Patricia Friend, AFA-CWA International President. "Several promotional fare ads, with their not very subtle innuendos, are demeaning not to just the hardworking flight attendants at Spirit Airlines but to all of America's professional flight attendants. They offend not just the female population of this country but the male members of humanity who admire and respect women."
The flight attendants' union has formally requested that Spirit management withdraw the demeaning advertising campaigns and "replace them with professional and respectful messaging."

Spirit Airlines, which bills itself as an Ultra Low Cost Carrier, has long been at odds with its crews, who have been complaining of contract violations at least since mid-2007. The mutual disrespect between Spirit management and the pilots continued through 2008, culminating (we thought) with the pilots filing suit against the airline in September of 2008. That suit claimed multiple violations of the Railway Labor Act, the law that governs labor relations in the airline industry.

I smell a strike in the offing if labor relations at Spirit Airlines don't improve very soon.

[Photo Source]