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.

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.

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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