Spirit Airlines canceled flights because it had no pilots. Chaos ensued
WASHINGTON — Yet again, cellphone video has captured a chaotic slice of air travel — this time, on the ground.
Anger and confusion boiled over at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Monday night as nine Spirit Airlines flights were canceled, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded, CBS affiliate WFOR News reported.
What followed was chaos as frustrated passengers clashed with Spirit employees, and law enforcement officers tried to maintain order.
Three New Yorkers remained jailed Tuesday after authorities said they started a near-riot at the airport, according to the Associated Press.
Video from the airport showed crowds clustered around Spirit Airlines ticket counters, with people pushing, screaming and cursing.
At one point in one of the videos, the stanchions holding in the line were knocked over, and a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy was shoved to the ground. Sheriff’s deputies detained several passengers and charged them with disorderly conduct, Fox News affiliate WSVN reported.
‘‘All of a sudden, one particular flight got canceled, and a mob ensued up here at the front counter, in front of everyone else who had been waiting in line,’’ passenger Paul Smith told the station.
Another passenger told the station that Spirit employees ‘‘couldn’t handle what was going on, so they called in for the police.’’
The flight cancellations were reportedly the result of a legal dispute between the budget airline and the Air Line Pilots Association International.
In a statement, Spirit Airlines blamed its pilots for the cancellations and the resulting chaos.
About 300 Spirit Airlines flights have been canceled in the past week, according to CNN.
‘‘We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport,’’ Spirit spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement. ‘‘This is a result of unlawful labor activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by canceling multiple flights across our network. These pilots have put their quest for a new contract ahead of getting customers to their destinations and the safety of their fellow Spirit Team Members.’’
Berry said the airline had filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the pilots union and others for ‘‘purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations, leading to hundreds of canceled flights, which has negatively impacted thousands of Spirit customers’ travel plans.’’
‘‘So we reluctantly filed this suit to protect our customers’ and our operations,’’ Berry said. ‘‘This is clearly unlawful activity under the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the airline industry. ALPA and those individuals responsible should be held accountable.’’
ALPA is disputing the airline’s accusations, saying the two are ‘‘not engaged in a job action.’’
‘‘Rather, ALPA and the Spirit pilots are continuing to do everything possible to help restore the company’s operations, which have experienced significant problems over the past several days,’’ an ALPA representative said in a statement. ‘‘While we will continue these efforts, we will actively defend the association, its officers and its member pilots against the unwarranted and counterproductive legal action brought [Monday] by Spirit Airlines.’’
On Tuesday, a federal judge sided with the carrier and ordered its unionized pilots to stop boycotting flights as part of a labor action.
Tygear Kelly was one of the hundreds of Spirit passengers stranded at the airport on Monday night, according to WFOR.
‘‘It was chaotic; it was packed, this whole area was full of people,’’ Kelly told the station Tuesday morning. ‘‘I had to rebook my flight and everything. I missed my flight, I had to go back to the hotel where I was staying and I’m back here now to go back to New York.’’
Jennifer Glann said at the airport Tuesday that she was in the crowd Monday night, trying to get home to New Haven, Conn. She said conditions were ‘‘awful’’ and ‘‘horrible.’’
‘‘There was nowhere to stand, nowhere to sit,’’ she said. Employees were forcing people to go outside, she said. Soon, scuffles started. ‘‘People were getting arrested left and right.’’
Paul Yankowitz of Newark, N.J., said he tried to remain calm as the crowd became enraged. He didn’t think the cancellations were worth getting angry about.
‘‘It sucks but like anything else in this life, life is short and you can’t get stressed,’’ he said.
Sheriff’s reports released Tuesday say 22-year-old Desmond Waul of Selden and 24-year-old Janice Waul and 22 year-old Davante Garrett, both of Brentwood, were seen by deputies threatening the airline’s front counter employees. Deputies said their actions caused the crowd to become increasingly aggressive to the point of near-violence and that they wouldn’t leave when ordered. When deputies tried to arrest them, they said the three threatened them and resisted efforts to handcuff them.
The three are charged with inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing. They were being held Tuesday at the Broward jail in lieu of $10,000 bond each. Records do not show if they have attorneys.
Fort Lauderdale airport was the scene of a mass shooting in January that killed five people and wounded six. It happened in another terminal on the opposite side of the airport.
Airport spokesman Greg Meyer said Tuesday that the airport staff has added security agents and other staff at the terminal to help Spirit. He said passengers are often anxious before flying, so any serious disruption can aggravate matters. Three more flights were canceled Tuesday.
‘‘For many people, airline travel is very challenging. A lot of people don’t do it frequently, so they are nervous anyway. When your flight is canceled and you need to be somewhere at a certain time it is an imposition and we understand that. The airport tries to work with our airline partner to work with our passengers,’’ Meyer said.
Spirit, a low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Fla., often advertises fares as low as about $20 or $30 each way.
But it had the highest rate of consumer complaints in 2015, the first year the Transportation Department included the airline in its consumer complaints report, according to CNBC.
The department showed that 11.73 out of every 100,000 customers who flew Spirit in 2015 filed a complaint against the airline, most related to ‘‘flight problems.’’
The industry’s overall complaint rate that year was 1.9 per 100,000 fliers, CNBC reported.
The mayhem in Fort Lauderdale was the latest in a string of high-profile, airline-related incidents captured on video.
Perhaps the most notorious came in April, when viral videos captured a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The incident caused a public-relations crisis for United, which initially defended itself by stating that the passenger, David Dao, had ‘‘refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily.’’
Dao and United eventually reached an ‘‘amicable’’ settlement for an undisclosed amount, the airline said.
A few weeks after United’s dragging fiasco, American Airlines grounded a flight attendant after a video showed a confrontation between him and a passenger, allegedly after removing a woman’s baby stroller from the plane. Also in late April, a Delta Air Lines passenger said he was kicked off a plane for using the restroom; a few days later, a video emerged showing a Delta pilot hitting a passenger on the Jetway in Atlanta. The airline said the pilot was trying to break up a fight.
Earlier this month, a Southern California father posted video showing him and his family getting booted from a Delta flight after refusing to give up a seat for their toddler. They had bought the seat for their teenage son and were attempting to use it for his 2-year-old sibling.
The airline eventually apologized and offered a refund and ‘‘additional compensation.’’
Deep into this season of viral air-travel incidents, several airline executives came to Washington, where they got a brutal lashing on Capitol Hill last week.
Congressional panelists grilled United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives about unpopular policies that have infuriated customers and spawned viral videos, such as overbooked flights, hidden charges and absurdly confusing contracts.
The result, according to Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Massachusetts., is ‘‘lowered expectations’’ that lead many to believe that flying is ‘‘a horrible experience.’’ . . .
‘‘We’re all sick of it,’’ Capuano added.
By the end of the four-hour hearing — which also included statements from executives at American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines — Capuano’s surprisingly candid language was among the tamest blows that airline executives absorbed. The lawmakers’ collective message: Fix your airlines, or expect to hear back from us.
Said Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California: ‘‘How much do you hate the American people?’’
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.