Fistfights and riots open latest chapter in airline service drama

Spirit Airlines has one of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any airline. And, as of this morning, it also has the highest number of canceled flights — more than 300 since the beginning of May as the result of a labor dispute with and lawsuit against the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, has one of the best reputations, with no significant service disruptions this month.

Yet both are in the news today with disturbing new viral videos, the latest chapter an unprecedented airline customer-service drama.

Spirit’s cancellations led some 500 frustrated passengers, infuriated by being stranded, to riot at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida when Spirit announced cancellations of nine flights. Three air passengers were arrested by Broward County police for inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing.

Southwest’s brawl affected fewer customers, but was no less riveting. On Sunday, a passenger aboard an Oakland-bound flight from Dallas was reportedly arrested after exchanging blows with another passenger during a stopover in Burbank.

What’s going on here? Have we reached a tipping point in the passenger rights movement, where travelers are just not going to take it anymore? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking at how the incidents are being handled by the airlines and what your rights are.

The Spirit video went viral almost immediately. They show air passengers shoving and punching each other, airport personnel, and police officers, one of whom is knocked to the floor. Spirit Airlines won a temporary restraining order, forcing the union pilots to return to work.

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Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, said the airline “sincerely” apologized “for the disruption and inconveniences they have suffered.”

Berry blamed the pilots.

“We believe this is the result of intimidation tactics by a limited number of our pilots affecting the behavior of the larger group,” he added. “We are also shocked and saddened by the events that took place yesterday at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and at other airports across our network.”

According to Berry, the company hopes the court order will allow the airline and its customers to “put this moment behind us.”

But can Spirit Airlines really put this moment behind it? What will it do for the more than 20,000 passengers it stranded and inconvenienced with cancellations as of this writing? And what rights do those passengers have?

Violent treatment by the police, airline personnel or other passengers within airport terminals is covered by local law. Passengers affected by the rioting can press misdemeanor assault and battery charges.

Unfortunately, neither the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) nor Spirit Airlines guarantees stranded passengers any compensation for flight delays. Spirit, in fact, makes a point of offering its passengers what it bills as “The Bare Fare” — completely unbundled fares that provide for nothing more than transporting the passenger and one personal item between two points. In the event of a flight delay or cancellation, all Spirit is required to do is place passengers on the next available flight to that destination. Its contract of carriage absolves the airline of any further responsibility for assisting those passengers:

  • In case of a passenger with a confirmed reservation, Spirit may “rebook the customer on Spirit’s first flight on which seats are available to the customer’s original destination without additional charge…”
  • Passengers who book flights on other airlines will not be reimbursed (with limited exceptions)
  • Spirit will not be responsible for expenses resulting from a flight delay, although it may provide limited amenities on request, as a goodwill gesture.
  • Nonlocal passengers may receive hotel accommodations if an overnight stay is required and the cancellation was due to Spirit’s failure. Bad weather, ATC issues, or other things “outside of Spirit’s control” are specifically excluded.
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So as far as Spirit is concerned, it’s not responsible for providing any assistance to stranded passengers, some of whom have been sleeping on airport terminal floors, because the airline considers itself not at fault for the pilot union dispute.

And the DOT provides no help, as it leaves it up to airlines to decide what assistance, if any, to offer passengers with unusable air tickets: “Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements.”

That’s a rotten situation for passengers to find themselves in.

As for Southwest, a spokeswoman credited an employee for breaking up the fight. “Our Employees are our everyday heroes and are trained to de-escalate conflict while delivering heartfelt hospitality,” she says.

But that hardly addresses the bigger issue of why passengers were fighting. According to news reports, the fight was triggered by someone who was “messing” with a seat, which probably involved someone leaning into another passenger’s personal space. Airlines have been shrinking legroom almost every year, and Southwest is no exception.

Despite the presence of airlines on congressional radar following the forcible removal of David Dao from a United flight last month, there was probably never any likelihood that the current Congress, with its antipathy for business regulation, will legislate any airline regulations that would give passengers relief.

I can only hope that airlines will conclude that treating passengers well is far more likely to result in higher profits than treating them badly.

But as long as air passengers are willing to pay as little as possible for cheap flights, airlines will continue to ignore their needs. Only when passengers vote, both with their wallets and their ballots, will airline abuse of passengers stop.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for

  • John Baker

    Where’s the part condemning the pilots union for the illegal sick out that caused the issue in the first place? Did I miss that part?

  • sirwired

    I do wonder why airlines consider their own internal labor disputes to be matters “outside their control” and therefore not requiring the usual amounts of stranded-passenger care, like hotels and meal vouchers.

    On the Southwest kerfuffle; all indications are that this happened during deplaning; it did not involve any leaning or intrusions into somebody’s seat space. (One report said it was a fight over two non-deplaning passengers trying to claim the same exit-row for the next leg.)

  • James

    The customer didn’t buy the ticket from the pilots’ union. The customer buys it from the airline, and maintaining the relationships with pilots is (or should be) a responsibility for that airline.

  • MF

    Where’s the part condemning Spirit for underpaying its pilots not negotiating in good faith which led to this job action? Did you miss that part too? Spirit’s apparent philosophy is to F*** everyone except the shareholders & the CEO.

  • Alan Gore

    Yes, the video shows the area as being almost empty. A recent PBS series on air travel began with an astonishing statistic, that at any given moment there are roughly a million people in the air. A certain fraction of these appear to be “bus riders”.

  • John Baker

    What part about illegal did you miss? If they were negotiating in bad faith, there’s a legal process to go through before you start striking. The union didn’t follow it. Except for the union demanding big concessions, who’s saying Spirit isn’t negotiating in good faith.

    BTW in case you missed it in HS econ, the purpose of a business is to generate value for its shareholders. Publicly held companies get sued when they don’t.

  • John Baker

    Funny that normally no one has issues calling out the illegal actions of an employee or employees until its union related…

  • Michael__K

    Did I miss that part?

    Apparently. Did you skip the paragraph quoting Spirit’s spokesperson, Mr. Berry?
    Spirit had no trouble delivering the worst on-time performance in the industry (and the worst record of re-accommodating stranded passengers) even without any pilot action.

  • Michael__K

    And I thought that pilots are widely considered above reproach and above criticism — UNLESS it’s a union related matter…

  • Hanope

    Well, maybe not “intrustions into seat space” per se, but the whole reason why people want the exit rows is because there’s more “seat space” in those rows than elsewhere on the plane.

    I loved the woman screaming out, “what is wrong with you?” Indeed.

  • James

    When I do business with someone, I don’t care about your excuses for not providing a service. I expect you to make it better.

  • Skeptic

    It’s not a “sick out.” Pilots are merely refusing to pick up trips in “open time.” Here’s how it works: each month, pilots bid for trips they want to fly. Their union contract guarantees a minimum # of hours/month but DOES NOT require them to fly MORE hours than this. Most of the time, though, pilots like to add trips above their minimum because they get paid a premium to fly the extra hours. They can pick up such trips by choosing them from the “open time” listing. Again, though, there is no contractual or legal requirement for the pilots to fly these extra hours.

    Pilots sometimes have to drop trips they have already been assigned to fly during bidding. Reasons can include being sick (as I’m sure you’re aware, there are all kinds of reasons pilots are not allowed to fly, including if they need to take certain pain-killers, fail their 1st class physical, have new neurological or cardiac symptoms, etc.), wanting to be home for Mother’s Day for the first time in years, attending graduations and weddings, etc. Just like you and me, pilots have lives, too. I don’t believe Spirit’s pilots are dropping trips right now at a higher rate than normal. And please note that when a pilot drops a trip, she or he DOESN’T GET PAID. Pilots are hourly workers, not salaried. So generally, especially at airlines where the pay is low to begin with, pilots only drop assigned trips if they have no other choice. Those trips end up on the “open time” list.

    Spirit treats its pilots worse than any other domestic airline, which is saying a lot. The airline is understaffed because there’s a shortage of qualified pilots to begin with, and most pilots would rather work anywhere else, including for foreign carriers. So Spirit has lots of trips that don’t get assigned each month and that thus end up in “open time,” waiting for a team of pilots to pick them up. Meanwhile, the airline continues to sell tickets without knowing whether they will have a crew to fly the plane.

    It is easy to blame the pilots, but in a capitalist system, maybe you should look at market forces. Companies that consistently undervalue their employees in a tight labor market can and should expect to see repercussions for this choice. From a consumer point of view, the race to the bottom in terms of fares also makes it somewhat risky to be a bottom feeder: your cheap flight may lack anyone willing to pilot the plane.

  • Steve

    If you fly Spirit you are taking your chances.

  • sirwired

    As far as passengers are concerned, the matter stops with “Spirit didn’t have enough aircrew to operate their schedule.”

    Unless a sudden contagious plague has befallen the ranks of their pilots, it doesn’t really matter to passengers why. A a union action, the results of a drunken bacchanal, a lock-out, a sick-out, mass firing, FAA enforcement action, whatever. Makes zero difference at all.

  • MF

    JB – hilarious! If you ever get your ATP license, you are already vetted to join Ben’s ‘buses with wings’ team. Only the ignorant, the desperate, and the poor would consider going with Spirit.
    As for the worn-out ‘generate value for shareholders’ saw, corporations can value other things than short term profits; like their customers, their integrity, and customer loyalty, just to name a few that might contribute to their bottom line.

  • MF

    Steve, no! If you fly Spirit, you are askin’ for it.

  • michael anthony

    In a news report on the Spirit fight, a woman said that a large number of people were flying to a graduation. She said that it was typical anger and frustration, but what escalated it, was the absolute indifference and non communication to the paxs as the hours went on. I’m not excusing the fight, but once again, instead of trying to decrease tension, some carriers ignore the paxs, which just increases the tension. Sometimes a simple apology and some free food with a promise of hourly updates, might be enough. Small gestures mean alot. Yet, from all I’ve heard, Spirit never goes the extra step.

    In a brand new video out today, it’s an argument between a United pax and the check in agent. He was being charged $300 for overweight bag and was pressing why, because he had only paid a bit over $100 on the previous flight and had the same items. He persisted because the agent did nothing. In the video, he’s not yelling or swearing, but definitely feels he’s being taken advantage of. Suddenly, the gate agent says “That’s it, cancel his reservation”. She then began taping him. The gate agents tone was angry and put out. And it looked like there was no line waiting. From what I see, he’s totally in the right, in questioning the almost triple charge. If the agents even said, “let’s look into this,” it could have ended in a good way.

    In many of these recent incidents, it’s the carriers that escalate the situation. I doubt anyone who would stand there meekly while being lectured in a stern tone. The pax flight in Burbank is totally a different story and the 2 paxs deserve to be charged. But these other cases beg that airlines mandate courses in dealing with tension paxs and how to de-escalate.

  • Alan Gore

    Yes, a fundamental flaw of our current system is that although there are specified penalties in the external legal system for passengers who misbehave, there are no such penalties on the airline side. You’re at the mercy of the first employee who is having a bad day.

  • Lindabator

    Another shoddily written article by Jennifer — “customer rights” had NOTHING to do in the case of Southwest — the fight was strictly between two passengers, and was not precipitated by ANYTHING the airline did. STOP repeating what the media has been doing, by blaming the airlines for a passenger’s bad behavior – especially when they had NOTHING to do with it

  • Lindabator

    but screaming and punching don’t make it happen any faster or more conveniently

  • Lindabator

    they charge by weight, and the first one might have let him slide, or he really did add one or two things, and this agent was a stickler for the rules

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