Spirit Pilots
A Spirit A321 taxis at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Spirit Airlines entered 2020 with big plans for expanding its route map, fleet, and pilot group. Then the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the worldwide economy. But thanks to pilot sacrifice and company collaboration, 2020 will have been an intense but brief setback for the nation’s largest ultra-low-cost carrier.

The pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) began following COVID-19 closely at the beginning of the year. By March, Spirit began reducing capacity due to the rapidly spreading pandemic. The pilot group negotiated the first of what would be a series of memorandums of understanding (MOUs), granting the company a one-time, five-day bidding delay to adjust its shrinking schedule. In exchange, management is pay protecting certain categories of pilots who are impacted by COVID-19.

“At the time, we were the first U.S. passenger carrier with these protections, and we really believe the MOU helped reduce the number of COVID-19 cases on the property,” said Capt. Scott Vallach, the pilots’ MEC chair.

Vallach and Capt. Ryan Muller, the MEC vice chair, were elected as new MEC officers in mid-March, just as the pandemic was gaining strength. Vallach tasked Muller to work with the chief pilot on a companywide cleaning initiative that helped to ensure the sanitation of crew rooms, training centers, simulators, and aircraft cockpits and cabins.

As part of COVID MOU 2, the company provided a $3 million lump-sum payment to the pilot group, to be distributed equally among all seniority list pilots, as well as insurance protections for new-hire pilots who might be subject to a furlough. Subsequent COVID MOUs adjusted bidding timelines, allowed pilots to bid for nonflying 50-hour voluntary incentive lines (VIL), guaranteed unpaid leaves of up to six months, improved the pilot commuter policy, increased monthly offerings of long-call reserve, allowed reserve pilots to drop additional days of work, and other items.

Despite strong pilot support for the monthly VILs, it was clear that more needed to be done. Spirit sought and received $334 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, and the MEC entered intense negotiations with management on furlough mitigation. MEC leaders began holding weekly teleconferences with the airline’s CEO and COO.

On July 29, the company warned the pilot group that it might be forced to furlough more than 800 pilots if federal payroll support program funds weren’t extended beyond October 1. The pilots and management worked together once again to draft COVID MOU 7, which created nonflying 50-hour extended incentive lines (EILs) of three-, six-, and eight-month durations.

The MEC also launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #SaveRahul with the goal of saving the job of Rahul Butani, the most junior first officer on the seniority list. Almost half the pilot group—1,217 pilots—accepted VILs and EILs, and with MEC approval of COVID MOU 8, all planned October 1 furloughs, downgrades, and displacements were canceled.

“That was my proudest moment as an ALPA member,” Vallach acknowledged. “This pilot group demonstrated compassion and concern for their juniors and for each other and focused on leaving no one behind. Their demonstration of unity and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

The airline continues to recover, and the future looks promising. Spirit didn’t offer monthly VILs through the holiday months due to improved bookings, and pilots on three-month extended leaves began returning to the line in January. The airline told investors it expected to end 2020 returning to approximately 70 percent of its usual schedule.

“Last year was, without a doubt, the most challenging and frustrating year we’ve experienced,” said Vallach. “But through collaboration, hard work, and a steady focus on the health of both our pilots and company, the pilots and management have thus far successfully navigated the troubling waters of COVID-19. While we can’t say with certainty what 2021 will bring, we’re hopeful that our collective actions and efforts in 2020 have set us up well for success this year.”