Pilot Strike Could Be the End of Spirit As We Know Them

Labor Relations, Spirit

I hope everyone had a good weekend. Of course, if you had plane tickets on Spirit, it was far from it. The pilots went on strike in the wee hours on Saturday morning and flights were canceled from that point on. As this now stretches into day 3, it is becoming more clear that the next time Spirit flies an airplane, it may Spirit Strike - Leverage Mattersnot be quite the same.

The fight is your standard labor brawl. The pilots want more, management doesn’t want to give it to them, and now everybody is pissed. So far, management seems to be doing a better job of stating its case to the public. The PR team has been issuing relatively frequent updates with specific details of contract proposals, a far cry from the lack of even a mention on the website before it started (which is just so wrong). So where are we now?

Well, flights are canceled through Tuesday at the very least and people are stranded. If you’re flying Spirit this week, give us a shout at Cranky Concierge via phone at (707) 797-7474 or via email at info@crankyconcierge.com and we will do our best to help.

But what exactly has been offered? Spirit says that it will give a substantial pay increase, increase the amount of money matched in the 401k, offer a signing bonus, and more. But what’s an increase without knowing the base value, right?

Right now, an 8 year captain on the A319 makes $122 an hour. A 15 year captain on the A319 makes $138 an hour. After signing, this would instantly jump to $134 and $152 respectively. By the end of five years, those would rise to $170 and $186.

The pilots are speaking more generically and less frequently about what they want – a “fair and equitable” contract – which effectively means they want something that’s comparable to others in the industry. Of course, we have to figure out which airlines are the right ones for comparison purposes. How about JetBlue and AirTran, since they have the most similar networks and models?

JetBlue eight year A320 captains pull down $151 an hour with 15 year captains making $159. AirTran 737 pilots make $132 an hour at eight years and $153 at fifteen.

So this contract is quite comparable with AirTran from a pay perspective, but that doesn’t mean it is from a benefits and work rules perspective. Clearly, there’s something here the pilots don’t like, but my requests for more information on that have gone unanswered so far.

Regardless of what they want, they might be underestimating the fact that they could end up getting nothing but a pink slip. The airline has been around for a lot longer than you might think – 30 years in some form or another, in fact. So there are some senior pilots flying around making a decent living at the airline.

Meanwhile, Spirit has made it clear to the world that the airline lives solely to offer insanely low fares (plus a ton of fees and ancillary products). The combination has turned a money loser into a profitable airline. So they’re riding high, but now what?

One way to be able to reduce fares is to lower your costs. Hmm, replacing striking pilots with cheaper, greener pilots seems right up their alley, doesn’t it? Sure, it hurts to go through a strike, so they have clearly made an effort to settle this in some way. Some would argue that they haven’t made enough of an effort, but there obviously has been an effort. Offering more pay for pilots is worth avoiding the pain, and it’s the right thing to do.

But guess what? The airline is now already feeling the pain. The strike has happened, they’ve made a strong offer, so what’s their incentive to cave? Not much. They’re already taking the revenue and PR hit, so now it becomes a different calculation for them.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this end badly for the pilots. Oh, Spirit won’t come out smelling like roses at all, but they can still survive. As for those pilots, well, that may end up being a much harder landing. That’s why I say that the next time we see Spirit flying, it could be a somewhat different airline.

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67 comments on “Pilot Strike Could Be the End of Spirit As We Know Them

  1. How do you know that “they can still survive,” when as a private company, Spirit to the best of my knowledge gives us no audited access to its finances?

    1. Good question Don. Even though they’re private, they are required to issue financials via Form 41 at transtats.bts.gov. So we know something about their financials, but they are relatively short on cash. The thing we do know is that they have deep pockets. They are owned by Indigo Partners, which is run by former America West CEO Bill Franke. He owns several of these type of carriers around the world, and if he wants the airline to survive, he can. Heck, he could just shut it down and start from scratch I suppose.

      You’re right though – there’s no guarantee they’ll survive.

      1. Thank you. I appreciate the reply.

        Although I do not know if Form 41 incorporates verification by a neutral third party, at least until now Spirit would have had little incentive to “fudge” these reports, unless heavily leveraged. The “stand tough” stance of management likely supports Spirit’s current viability.

  2. What no one realized was how successful the strike would be…this is the first big strike since the internet has become mass. It has made scabbing almost impossible, within minutes of a scab moving an airplane, not only is his picture and name on all the websites, but the picketers can find his/her address on property appraisers websites and picket in front of their home. This is why Baldanza will not find any pilot willing to cross the picket line, or any charter airline willing to fly spirit passengers.

    1. The first strike in the US, maybe, but how is it that BA is having no trouble finding people to fly its airplanes? Are you suggesting its different for flight attendants?

      1. like night and day….anyone can be a flight attendant in 2 weeks or less…but a qualified a320 all weather-international operations captain is more like 12 years…besides are you sure BA is operating their airplanes with flight attendants on board? are they flying 100% schedule

        1. I wasn’t referring to qualifications but rather the ability to get other people to take their place. I don’t see why the reaction would be different whether pilot or flight attendant. You’re saying that Spirit can’t find anyone to fly its airplanes or anyone who will offer charters (which does appear to be true since they’re still grounded, now through Wednesday). But why is BA not having any trouble?

          BA isn’t flying 100% during the strikes but they are flying well over half the flights. Some of these are people crossing the line to fly BA aircraft but others are charters. They’ve had charters from a variety of European airlines that started on day one.

          So why aren’t they having trouble finding people to fly while Spirit is? The first thing that comes to mind is that since Spirit is represented by ALPA, it’s easier to get other ALPA pilots to honor the strike in that way.

          1. CF,

            You have to know that qualifying FA’s on an A320 and qualifying a flight crew on an A320 are two very different things. Even if you have a type-rated A320 captain with experience in the aircraft (which you need) he still has to meet passenger-carrying currency requirements. Nothing that can’t be done in a sim in short order, but still… I gotta think that if an out-of-work A320 pilot flies struck work, if you’ve got to figure that he’s just black-listed himself from just about every ALPA carrier in the book. I can’t say I’d do that. I’d only fly that work if and only if Spirit would guarantee me a job, in writing, for the foreseeable future. (Not just temporary help.) And then again, I’d only want to do that if Spirit ended up replacing all of their pilots.

            As far as charters go, yeah, you have that ALPA issue in a major way. Carriers who could theoretically fly a charter (besides the obvious ones like Miami Air) would be who, American (represented by the in-house “Allied Pilots Association”) or US Airways, right? Even then, not sure that these guys would be flying struck work.

            Second, I have to wonder from a business and operations perspective, whether or not you have to have a certain critical mass to make it worth your while. That is, even if an airline could spare a plane or two for the day for charters, would it be worth bothering to run it?

            Third, you have to know that comparing European carriers to US carriers are two totally different things. (Heck, foreigners can’t even own a US airline.)

          2. Dan – True that you can’t just plop someone in the cockpit, but Spirit has known this was coming for over a month. There would have been nothing stopping them from finding A320 qualified pilots and getting them up to speed . . . if they could find them.

            It’s the charters that surprise me more. I would never expect a US or any traditional commercial carrier to do this. But there are a bunch of charter carriers flying around that could do this work.

            Yes, Europe is different, but what the internet brought in the US, it brought over there as well. That shouldn’t be different.

          3. CF: The reason nobody crosses the picket line is because their faces get plastered all over the industry circuits. It’ll be the last airline job they could ever get, which screws them when they eventually get furloughed as low seniority employees.

            Pilots put more money into building their experience than workers of any other profession. Those qualifications need to be recognized and Spirit did a crappy job of doing so.

      2. Sam Powers,
        This is not the first strike since the internet became commonplace. Polar Air pilot struck back in 2005.

        1. Polar and Spirit are two different animals. Polar is solely a cargo transport company, with no public “outcry” for a stoppage of service during a strike. This is the first PASSENGER airline strike since the internet became a daily method of communication for the majority of the U.S. (and quite a large population of the world in general), and it won’t be the last… AirTran’s pilot strike is coming quickly, probably within 2-3 months.

          CF, a couple of comments. First, Spirit management expected the pilots to cave in, therefore they did not put any contingency hiring plans into effect. Given that it takes 2-3 months to fully spin up a qualified pilot (if you could find enough Scabs to do it – highly unlikely), and that they can only run 30-40 pilots through class each month, it would take nearly a year to replace the Spirit pilots. I submit to you with the limited cash on hand, despite the “deep pockets” of the institutional investors, Spirit would be out of business by the time they could replenish their pilot cadre.

          Second, who do you think went to work for those Charter operators in the U.S.? That’s right, furloughed card-carrying ALPA and Teamsters pilots. They won’t cross the picket line, and thus, be labeled Scabs for life. THAT’S why no charters will be coming to Spirit’s rescue.

          Lastly, your comparison on pay rates isn’t an accurate one, probably because it was propaganda from Spirit management. The Spirit SPSC could certainly give you more accurate numbers if you wanted them, but the jetBlue rates you compared them to don’t account for the fact that jetBlue pilots get paid a 50% override on that pay for any flight time above 75 hours. That would make the hourly “blended” rate that Spirit pilots were offered nearly 15% below jetBlue rates. And comparing them to AirTran is not a fair comparison, either; AirTran pilots are getting ready to STRIKE over those rates, and the target pay raises AirTran pilots are looking for are 30-35% higher than existing AirTran rates.

          In short, Spirit management came to the table with barely a 2.3% raise per year when the CPI is up nearly 3% yearly over the last 10 years. So a raise that doesn’t keep up with inflation? In my math book, that’s called a “permanent pay cut”. Time for Spirit to come back to the table with a reasonable offer (and the NMB ordered Spirit management back to the table this afternoon). I hope this resolves itself by the end of the week (and I’m betting it will – Spirit management wasn’t prepared for this kind of a fight – the pilots were).

          1. I suppose that’s the connection – ALPA. For BA, the pilots aren’t honoring the strike, so it is a matter of finding a new flight attendant, something that can be done outside the union easily. With pilots in the US, I wonder how many are out of work that aren’t union members? Not nearly as many.

            A straight pay rate comparison is never accurate because it fails to include all sorts of things like work rules, etc. But the problem is that the Spirit pilots aren’t talking. I’ve sent notes off to the only contact number on their website and I’ve heard nothing. If you know someone who wants to talk about the contract, send ’em my way.

          2. Spirit ALPA probably isn’t talking because it will upset the NMB. It’s called “negotiating in public” and is HIGHLY frowned upon. Doesn’t stop management from doing it, but ALPA is VERY careful about what they put out in the press, lest they garner anger from the NMB. The cards are always stacked in management’s favor with the RLA, treading lightly is required by pilot groups. I’ll see if I can’t email the SPSC coordinator and see if he can spare a few minutes of one of his communications rep’s time for you.

            In the U.S. there are approximately 4,000 furloughed pilots when you count the shutdown of ATA and Aloha and the pilots that UAL and AA and other carriers (in smaller numbers) put on the street in the last decade since 9/11. ALL of those were/are unionized carriers. A large percentage of those pilots have found other jobs over the last 3-10 years (varying from when they were furloughed), be it at SWA, AAI, even Spirit, or other, fringe Charter operators like Omni, Miami Air, Falcon Air, Kalitta, etc, but they’re still card-carrying union members, just on furlough.

            There just aren’t enough pilots willing to scab who are EXPERIENCED enough to jump right into a new aircraft type as PIC… you might find a few young Regional pilots of the “me, me, me” variety who would scab with dreamy visions of flying large jets, but they’d struggle in the training, many would fail, they’d be forever ostracized at the “dream carriers” (pilots are involved in the hiring process and being a scab is “the end” in aviation) and to be honest, it’s just not large enough of a dent in Spirit’s overall operation to do any real good in any kind of timely fashion.

            Spirit’s ONLY way out of this, short of bankruptcy and closure, is to find a deal with the pilots. I hope, for everyone’s sakes, passengers and OTHER employee groups and their families alike, a deal is found sooner than later.

    1. they were happy…but baldanza without notice gave them a ¨temporary¨ pay cut after 9-11 …that was almost 10 yrs ago….if an employer does not keep his promise you should be allowed to strike…

    2. Craig,

      It’s not so simple. Pilots are paid based on years of service with the company and equipment flown. If a 10-year captain at Spirit is not happy, and he goes to Jet Blue, he goes as a first-year first-officer at first-year first-officer pay. So if that’s the arena they work in, “if you don’t like it quit” isn’t a viable option.

      The issues involved with airline pilot pay and the environment are quite complex, and aren’t something that can really be explored and resolved on a message board.

      1. “and he goes to Jet Blue, he goes as a first-year first-officer at first-year first-officer pay”

        But that’s only because the unions want it that way. They demand to pay based on years of service with a particular airline rather than pay based on years of service, which would allows pilots to change airlines without the significant loss of pay.

        IMO its disingenuous for pilots and unions to use that argument, because they have brought it on themselves.

        1. oops.

          I meant to say “They demand to pay based on years of service with a particular airline rather than pay based on years of experience, which would allows pilots to change airlines without the significant loss of pay.”

        2. Charlie,

          Note my comment on “the issues involved with airline pilot pay and the environment are quite complex, and aren’t something that can really be explored and resolved on a message board.”

          The point you raise is one of those. There are a couple of points I want to make in this regard:

          1. Management wants it this way too. If one airline made this concession to their pilot group, I’d say maybe it’s something they gave the union for the sake of a contract. But every carrier does it with every work group. If this is something management *doesn’t* want, then why does everybody agree to it?

          Additionally, I think it actually makes sense for the company. First, every new hire comes in at the bottom of the pay scale. Period. So new hires are always the cheapest. Second, when it comes to concessionary times, you know you have some leverage — it costs a lot more for a pilot to quit than it does for him to take say a 5% or 10% cut.

          2. I worked as a ramper for a regional airline, and my work-group was non-unionized. Guess what? Our pay rates were based on years of service with the company, too. And we had no union for them to make that a contract requirement. If management didn’t have at least some affinity for the scheme, why have it?

          I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the pay schemes are something that management doesn’t want at all.

          1. There’s an old adage in the airline management biz… “If your airline isn’t growing, it’s dying”. What that means is that, as ALL the employee groups become more senior and cost more, if the airline isn’t adding new routes, new aircraft, and new employees, at the cheaper, new-hire salaries, then costs are going up (increased labor costs each year) without new revenue streams to offset them.

            The “pay more as you work somewhere longer” isn’t a concept novel only to the airline biz, and getting away from it is probably not an accomplishable task. As other have said, Charlie, unions are not the ones who want it that way… airline management loves new-hires, they cost less than 5, 7, or 10 year F/O’s. Just the reality we live in.

  3. A house divided will not stand…
    I know it’s not PC to stick up for SpiritAir, but we need an “unbundled” airline option like RyanAir in this country; all the other carriers offer bundled fares at different levels. This said, I hope ALPA and Spirit come to an agreement and all get back in the air where they belong.

    1. We already have an unbundled airline option. It’s called Allegiant Air, and it’s the most profitable airline in the USA right now.

  4. In the long run, I think the pilots will lose out on this. Yes, I understand the need to stand up and ask for equal benefits, but don’t get too stuck on the fight and be willing to accept a deal. I know there are a lot of regional pilots who have been stuck at the regional level longer than usual (due to the economy) that are ready to move up to larger aircraft.

  5. My understanding is that the contract offered 90 hours/month flying and a $10K signing bonus if they agreed to only 7 days off per month. That doesn’t sound too bad but when pilots work, they’re away from home. That’s only 7 days at home each month. Spirit also uses a formula to determine seniority that combines date of hire with number of hours flown. The pilots want a straight date of hire as most airlines do.

    The chief pilot and the director of flight operations resigned yesterday and joined the picket lines. They are both well-regarded by the pilot corps as I understand it and have not been treated well by airline management recently. From what I have seen, there are no other qualified candidates to fill those spots expeditiously and Spirit may be on the ground for much longer than they’ll publicly state.

    1. That’s incorrect. They weren’t offered 90 hours a month flying. The contract just gave an example of how much they would make IF they flew 90 hours each month, which is impossible because they are restricted to flying only 1000 hours/year. Also, almost all their schedules are between 70-80 hours per month, rarely are they around 90 hours. It’s just another tactic by management to make it look like the pilots would earn more money than they actually would.

    1. I don’t have that. None of this info has been provided beyond what Spirit puts in the press release. They aren’t showing 1st year first officers. A fourth year first officer would rise from 61 to 67 an hour.

  6. Spirit could just shut the airline down today and put a help wanted sign up tomorrow and if any of those pilots wanted a job they and any other employee group would now be new hires started at what ever ‘new’ new hired salary Spirit wanted to start them at, and it wouldn’t be what they are offering now.

    Sadly it’s all the other employees who are going to loose their jobs because of the pilots who with their current wages are making a lot more an hour then other employees.

    1. Well, it is a big deal. We haven’t seen a pilot strike as a passenger airline in the US in a long time. And there are plenty of people out there who are impacted on all sides. I’m writing another piece about the pilots losing the PR battle for BNET tomorrow.

    1. It’s impossible to know, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was still going. You’ll have to keep watching and see what happens when it gets closer. (Or we could do it for you at crankyconcierge.com.)

  7. This is a touchy subject. I remember reading that the Buffalo, NY Continental Commuter crash was potentially because the pilots were so underpaid, they had to work more shifts than they should have, making them tired and unfocused. I saw in a documentary that many younger pilots are paid so little, they have to live on foodstamps. I know it’s not as much of a concern with seasoned pilots who are paid more, but we put our lives in the hands of these people, and I want to make sure they are paid enough to do a good job!

    1. Thank you Emily, for your thoughts and support. No matter how much or little we are paid, it is our job to safely get you to your destination; any pilot who would claim that money makes a difference in how well they perform their job doesn’t need to wear the uniform. That said, yes, money makes a difference in quality of life and, in the case of the Colgan tragedy, whether the Captain was well-rested, or even well-qualified, but that’s an argument for another day.

      The cost for EVERYTHING goes up in life; labor costs included. Spirit management chose to try to deny reasonable increases to their pilots; THAT is where people need to lay their anger. Spirit management KNEW their pilots are the LOWEST paid Major airline pilots in the United States today. Spirit management KNEW their pilots were willing to strike (a 98% strike vote from the pilots was pretty compelling evidence). Spirit management KNEW how badly this would affect their customers.

      What the flying public likely DOESN’T know is that two other Major players, Southwest and Alaska, quietly inked new contracts with their pilots in the last year. Rather than face a strike that hurts the customers, management worked WITH those pilots to obtain a fair and equitable agreement and the public never had to worry about it. Spirit management had that same opportunity, and they made the conscious decision to go the route of a strike.

      Thank you again for your support. I hope many will read your words and realize that pilots are just people trying to gain reasonable raises, just like the average passenger might negotiate for a salary increase, and that Spirit management denying those reasonable increases is the cause behind all this.

    2. Emily – There is a flip side to this as well. Look at other professions and it’s the same thing. Doctors make a ton of money once they become doctors, but that usually doesn’t happen until they’re in the thirties. Before that, they’re scraping away just trying to survive until they get there.

      Now this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any changes here. There very likely should be, but the government keeps getting stuck on regulation changes. The Colgan accident was a combination of issues and the fault lies with both the company on one hand and the pilots on the other. While pay is a part of it without question, that’s just part of what you have to endure to get to a point in your life where you can be comfortable.

  8. Yesterday my MAR/APR 2010 issue of Airliners magazine arrived, and yes this is June so they are behind for some reason.

    Anyway, they have a three page story on Spirit and how wonderful things are for them and how Mister Baldanza says they are the Wal-Mart of the ailine biz and if you don’t like it, then fly someone else.

    Well right now it seems everyone needs to fly someone else.

    Ok, now I am wondering why this is a MAR/APR issue, usually magazines a month or two beyond the current month.

  9. $67/hr. may sound like a lot of money to some, but the reality is that it equates to about $60,000 per year for a highly qualified and skilled pilot. Unacceptable.

    If you take an average cockpit cost for Spirit (Capt and FO salaries combined) it would appear to be about $190/hr. If you increase that cost by 50% to $270/hr, you are increasing you flight hour cost by $80. A typically Spirit flight has a block time of just under 3 hours. 3 X $80 = $240.00. Divide $240 by the number of passengers (average about 120) and you would have to increase every fare by $2 each way to afford a sizable wage increase for pilots. Now Spirit has to charge $21, instead of $19 for a trip to FLL or come up with some other way to squeeze $2 out of the passengers. I’m quite certain this is easily obtainable.

    Most people spend more than $2 on a pack of gum in the Hudson Newsstand while waiting to board a flight.

    1. Ah, the old “just raise fares argument.” It’s amazing how often that one comes out. As is everything else in this industry, simply raising fares by $2 isn’t that simple at all. It just doesn’t happen that way. Pricing is a very delicate balance, and you’d be amazed at what tiny swings in prices can do to fill your seats. It’s also virtually impossible to just raise prices $2 across the board, because that’s not how the system works. The airlines do their best to maximize revenue with the capacity they have available to them, for the most part. If they could raise fares, they would.

      But even if they could, who says that the difference should just go to the pilots? There are plenty of other workgroups and there’s a need to invest in the airline and pay shareholders. So just because you as a pilot want a $2 increase, all of a sudden you need a $15 to $20 increase or more to satisfy everyone. But that’s not going to happen.

      Also, who says that $60,000 a year for a fourth year first officer is unacceptable? If people are willing to work for it, it’s completely acceptable. If people aren’t, then it’s not.

      1. Well, obviously it’s *NOT* acceptable. The pilots went on strike over it (and other issues). So there goes *that* argument… ;)

        You are absolutely correct, supply / demand / pricing is NOT perfectly elastic in the airline industry. It’s a delicate balance, but all things increase in cost over time. Pilot costs are one of those things. That requires that the price of the product to the consumer increases as well.

        A pilot’s job is to fly the aircraft safely and to demand a fair wage and quality of life for doing so. Management’s job is to make sure the airline stays profitable with reasonable wages and benefits for its employees. If it can’t accomplish that, the airline doesn’t need to exist. The era of ultra-low fares is, for now, mostly over. SkyBus is gone, Virgin is on the ropes, Spirit will either have to pay industry average wages or they might find themselves simply an entry in the annals of aviation history, and AirTran is next…

        1. No, the $67 figure was the latest proposal from Spirit management and not what the pilots went on strike over. But you can never look at the dollar amount alone anyway. In my eyes, $60,000 a year for a fourth year first officer sounds perfectly fine, but what rules come along with that? Are there any benefits? Vacation? How are the work rules set up? It’s the whole package.

          I couldn’t disagree more that the era of ultra low fares is over. I think it’s just getting started. Allegiant and Spirit both showed there was plenty of demand for that type of product, even with all the ancillary fees that end up ballooning the final cost. Without the low fares, those airlines wouldn’t exist.

          Now, to expand on this topic a little, let’s say you could get your $15 fare increase and everyone is happy. Then what happens when oil doubles in price? The airlines are bleeding and now all of a sudden they come back for concessions. You end up giving them, and here you are almost 10 years later trying to get them back. So why not go with a larger percentage of variable earnings?

          I know there will be plenty of groans from the old timers who remember Eastern’s Variable Earnings Plan (VEP). The VEP was loved as long as Eastern was making money. Then they started losing money and people got angry they didn’t get paid enough. But, for a pilot, this at least gives you a piece of the action any time an airline does well. Yes, you don’t earn as much when the airline doesn’t earn as much, but you instantly get more when times turn good again instead of having to wait through years of negotiations. Management loves it because they get more stability and can manage the troughs better.

          Of course, you have to start a decent base wage but the upside is good.

          1. I wonder what would happen if they tied everyone’s bonus to the same metrics? The company for every $10 million dollars of profit or thereof ever bonus eligible employee gets 2% of their pay as a bonus.

            I think the usual problem for labor in this situation is that management’s bonuses are better than labors.

  10. One easy reason why it’s not acceptable: it’s lower than *EVERY* other Major carrier out there, AirTran being the notable exception at $66 an hour with a nearly 10-year-old agreement that the pilots just voted almost 98% to strike over. Industry average 4th year F/O pay for that equipment is near the $85 an hour mark. Alaska, just inked a few months ago, is $93 an hour 4th year. Southwest 4th year F/O pay is $108 an hour.

    Second, that doesn’t equate to $60,000 a year; the company used a yearly comparison on credit hours that almost NO pilot is capable of reaching – 1,000 hours – that, incidentally, is the MAXIMUM a pilot can fly in a year per FAR 121.471. The average pilot credits 900 hours a year; that’s $54,000 at $67 an hour and equals 180 hours at work on duty each month (2 hours of duty for every flight hour is pretty accurate).

    Lastly, the work rules are definitely a problem. If you don’t fly at least 60 hours a month (that’s approximately 120 hours on duty at work), you don’t get your next year’s step raise. In other words, you get penalized if you’re sick (you break a leg or other protracted illness) or take FMLA to care for a spouse or a child and don’t credit 720 hours for the year. There’s quite a few other “gotchas” that also need to be eliminated before a T.A. will be offered to the pilot group.

    As far as a VEP? Yeah, not so much… for much the same reason as you listed with Eastern (and way too lengthy to go into here). Allegiant is trying it with their “tiers” in the new non-union pay scheme that came out a few months ago; I think it will take many years before it’s fully trusted and any appearances of tinkering with it will probably trigger an instant union drive. They, like jetBlue, are balancing on the head of a pin on keeping a pilot union off-property.

    After the last concessions were not returned at Spirit, I doubt very seriously you will EVER see a pilot group voluntarily give concessions back outside of bankruptcy, no matter a spike in oil or not; because Spirit promised they were “temporary” and then never gave them back, the pilots will never trust them again. Trust is a fragile thing – takes years to build, moments to destroy, and a lifetime to regain, both in personal relationships and business relationships. If things get rocky for Spirit, I seriously doubt the pilots will give ANYTHING back without IRONCLAD language with trigger points to regain those concessions. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…

    1. A couple of points here . . .

      Yes, Spirit pays less than the rest of the majors, but really, why shouldn’t they? Let’s forget about the exact numbers here, because I don’t think anyone would argue that they shouldn’t get a raise, but just focus on the concept. Do you think that servers at Ruth’s Chris are getting the same money as a server at Chili’s? Nope. They might both be restaurants, but they are different concepts as a company. The same goes for Spirit and really any other airline except possibly Allegiant. Now, the problem at a place like Spirit is that it didn’t always use to be so down market, so people who have been there for a long time didn’t expect it. But I would argue that Spirit pilots should be the lowest paid of the majors, because that’s how the business operates.

      Also, am I missing something in your math? Nine hundred hours a year times $67 per hour is $60,300.

      1. CF,

        That may be true, but I expect very different things from my Ruth’s Chris experience than I do my Chili’s. Better service, better training, etc. Same with the chefs in the back — I expect more from my Ruth’s Chris cooks than I do my McDonald’s “chefs.” Bad comparison? They both serve food…

        I think your airline pilot comparison breaks down in two different places:

        1. Airline pilots aren’t in the service business. They are paid to transport you safely from Point A to Point B. If there is a difference in pay, shouldn’t that mean there’s a difference in the quality of flying that they offer you? I sure as heck hope not.

        2. You want to claim that there’s a difference in business models between Spirit and the rest. If I said that wasn’t true, I’d be lying, but… from the perspective of an economy passenger, they all suck. The average client can easily tell the difference between eating at McD’s, Chilis, and Ruth’s Chris, but the average coach passenger has a fairly consistent experience no matter what airline s/he flies. Should United pilots get paid more just because they have first class, or Jet Blue’s pilots because they have LiveTV? Should Spirit’s pilots get paid less because management markets their fare products a bit differently?

        1. And I would suggest that you should expect very different things on your Spirit experience than on your American experience as well. If not, then you’re definitely in for a rude surprise, because it actually is quite different, even if American and the others have been racing to the bottom.

          Back to restaurants, how about the dishwashers in the back? They aren’t in the service business – they’re just washing dishes and it doesn’t matter if it’s at Ruth’s Chris or at Chili’s, right? But I would bet that they make more at a Ruth’s Chris. I don’t actually know this and could be shooting myself in the foot, but the point is the same. Higher service/product companies generally pay more.

          Also, we know that pilots will never be paid on the difficulty levels of their job, because that would turn the profession upside down. Those young guys flying 8 legs a day through thunderstorms have it much tougher than the guy flying long hauls a couple times a week.

  11. No, you’re not wrong, was in a hurry posting and used $60 an hour instead of $67 on my calculator. Either way, $67 an hour, as I pointed out with the industry averages and some other airline’s examples, is sub-par for the industry.

    Your thoughts on a comparable “airline” may be what most non-pilots see, but that’s not how pilot wages work in this industry. We use a concept called “pattern bargaining”, whereby EVERY airline, whether it’s Allegiant or Delta, uses a “comparable equipment” comparison when coming up with pay rates. That means that, when bargaining between ANY union and management is being accomplished, they’re using the pay rates for ALL airlines that operate that type of equipment to come up with the “industry average” pay.

    That also means that Spirit, AirTran, jetBlue, and Allegiant have been dragging down the averages for all the other airlines for many, many years – jetBlue *JUST* got to industry average with their last pay raise (and management only gave them that in the face of a mounting union drive).

    It also means that the industry average is a fair metric for the Spirit pilots. Pilots don’t care who they work for or what the fare is. I know that sounds blunt and, when considering how much the airline charges for fares, a little blind-sided, but Spirit is NOT just charging those fares – they’re making 4-6 times those fares in ancillary fees and are highly profitable doing it. I mean, $19 for your ticket but $45 for a carry on, $30 for a checked bag, $10 to choose your seat (and if you’re on vacation with kids I guarantee you’re using that option), all without buying a single drink or snack and you’ve already spent over $100 each way for your ticket.

    Thus, the only questions Spirit pilots care about is “What is fair (industry average) and can the company afford these raises?” Besides the airline’s management team, there is NO ONE more qualified to answer that question than ALPA; they’ve been analyzing airline profitability and contracts for decades and have a department (EF&A) that does that and ONLY that. If ALPA says Spirit can afford industry average wages and still remain competitive, you can take that to the bank.

    That means the pilots aren’t going to back down. That may not make sense to you, but replacing a $60,000 job in aviation, especially as we are coming into a new hiring swing, isn’t that difficult IF you are current and qualified in that equipment, as those Spirit pilots are. Last year? Yes, it would be very difficult. This year? No. I watch the job boards daily and the cheapest Airbus or 737 job out there is jetBlue with a $40,000 starting pay and $60,000 at year 2. Many international contracts on the A320 or 737NG are paying $80k-120k a year to start plus paid housing, paid commuting back and forth, 8-10 days off a month, plus vacation.

    $60,000 for an Airbus or 737 pilot is really bottom of the barrel. Spirit has enjoyed those subterranean pay rates for many years while they built the airline, but now it’s time to join the rest of the market place in pilot costs or lose a $250 Million business.

    1. I’m enjoying the back and forth here.

      Sure, pattern bargaining is how things work for the most part, but who says it has to be that way? Spirit has come in with a completely different model than what we’ve seen elsewhere, so there’s no reason they can’t try to do other things differently as well.

      There’s no reason that “fair” has to equal “industry average” except that’s just the way it’s been done.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m too much on the side of management here, because I’m not. There’s no question that the pilots at Spirit needed to fight for more. I’m just against this view that “the way things have always been” is the way it has to be. I know that’s a very hard thing to change, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

      1. I absolutely disagree with you that “fair” doesn’t equal “industry average”, especially in the case of Spirit which could afford the increases.

        Fair, by definition, is equality with what is considered the general norm or equal treatment, whether it be pay or days off or retirement, or any number of things. “Fair” in this case means what other pilots in similar equipment are paid, hence “Industry Average”. Anything less would be less than fair.

        You will never get pilots to stop looking at what other pilots are paid to judge their own “fair working conditions”. The same that other people do in a multitude of industries all over the world. It’s just the way the human race is. To fight that is to fight out own nature.

  12. So I’m just curious – if Spirit decides to cut their losses and close up shop, have the pilots “won”? Is that considered victory?

    1. No, of course not. No one WANTS a strike. No one WANTS to shut down an airline. But if that’s what it takes for ALL executives at ALL airlines to realize that labor is no longer going to sit back and exist on sub-standard wages, then so be it.

      Management had carte blanch to mess with wages and benefits for the last decade. The pendulum always swings; this time it swings for us.

  13. Cranky,

    You stated above that even if Spirit could increase the fare by $2, why should all that money go to the pilots. I agree, raise them by a whopping $4.00 (McDonald’s extra value meal) and pay everyone a livable wage.

    In the last years, the airline industry has had several fare increases and has still seen their loads increase while relative capacity remains neutral. Hmm, does this tell you something? Perhaps the consumer can afford to pay a reasonable price for air travel. Watch next month as all the airline report a “miraculous” profit out of thin air. What changed? Fuel costs have actually risen since last summer, labor costs have marginally increased, how can they possibly make a profit?

    We all understand the sensitiviy of pricing, but at the end of the day the traveller needs to get from point A to point B. If over the course of the next few months, prices were to increase a couple of bucks, you would see little change in consumer behavior.

    1. Actually, what changed since last year is a more than 20% increase in revenue. Does mean that the airlines could have charged more last year? No, it means that demand was severely depressed last year because of the recession. Revenues fluctuate a lot in this industry, and that’s never going to change. You can’t just raise fares a couple bucks. It doesn’t work.

  14. Cranky,

    There’s an old saying. “Don’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” If you had any clue of what it takes to get to the position of a 4 year First Officer you would not dare to claim that $60,000 a year is reasonable. The men and women that walk in those shoes have told you and the rest of the world that it is not. Furthermore, your arguments of how doctors and other skilled professions have seen pay declines do not hold water. An airline pilot can not leave their respective companies and work for the same pay. To the bottom they go. The only exception is some overseas contract flying. Cheap fares are not a right.

    1. It’s a good point about not being able to switch to other companies and retain seniority. I’m completely in favor of a master seniority list.

      1. Oh Cranky… “””””I’m completely in favor of a master seniority list.”””””

        That would never work. How would you like it if some new person started and passed you up in seniority and you’ve been a loyal employee for many years. You wouldn’t like it at all. It’s bad enough when another employee transfers to your location within the same company and gets ahead of you in seniority, but at least they to have been a loyal worker of that company and not some job jumping pilot (or any profession).

        1. Come on – you think that another airline is going to just go out and hire a bunch of senior guys off the street? Unlikely, but it does give the pilots more flexibility and it allows them to find another job if they aren’t happy without being penalized.

          1. Actually, it would work to a pilot’s DISadvantage, unless there were iron-clad rules that an airline MUST hire pilots in order of seniority, regardless of interview or anything else.

            Let’s say you’re flying for ATA, you’ve been an ALPA pilot for 20 years, you’re 50 years old, and ATA shuts down. However, Delta, Continental, and AirTran are all hiring. If one of those airlines were REQUIRED to hire you FIRST, before any other new-hires, without an interview, only the normal background PRIA check we all must go through, then sure, bring on a National Seniority List.

            Otherwise, you’d get discriminated against SOLELY by the fact that you’d come in as a new-hire maxed out on the pay scale (most ALPA airlines have a 12 year max F/O pay rate). If the airline KNEW you’d cost 4-5 times what a new-hire would for the foreseeable future and they had a way to NOT hire you, I guarantee you that you’d NEVER see another ALPA carrier ever again unless they HAD to hire you.

            The only way to do a NSL (and we, as pilots, have discussed this as a community ad nauseum), and make it palatable to airlines and unions alike is to not tie pay or seniority to it, simply allow an ALPA member to move between carriers and start over. However, that negates almost ALL the benefits to a pilot of doing so, except in your early years, might really mess with corporate fit of a pilot (not all pilots would do well at Southwest or jetBlue), and would exist more as a safety net for airline shutdowns than anything else… something that happens fairly infrequently in this business.

            And you want pilots to spend negotiating capital to obtain that? It won’t happen. There’s not enough pilots at any airline that want it badly enough to give up something else to get it, and that’s the way management functions. Unless management wants it, you have to negotiate and give up something else to get it.

            Just the reality we live in…

  15. Just saw that Spirit and ALPA have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract and the pilots will go back to work on Friday. Ratification of the contract will take place in July.

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