Pilots Catch the Spirit

By Barbara Gottshalk, Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot,
October 2004, p.20

"Adapt yourself to changing circumstances," urges a Chinese proverb, and the pilots of Spirit Airlines are heeding that advice. With their airline poised to grow significantly in the next 5 years, Spirit pilots are meeting the "changing circumstances" head on--signaling their willingness and ability to meet their airlines’ goals for growth.

Spirit Pilots at a Glance

Pilots: 356

Operations: 17 destinations with 120 daily departures (scheduled and charter)

Pilot bases: Ft. Lauderdale and Detroit

Company headquarters: Miramar, Fla. (near Ft. Lauderdale)

Equipment: Operates 32 MD-80s; 35 Airbus A320s now on order will replace the MD-80s as new fleet is delivered

Unlike many other U.S. carriers today, Spirit Airlines continues to expand and be profitable. Although the company reported a modest second-quarter loss this year--which it attributes to fuel price increases--Spirit has doubled its revenues in the past 5 years.

Additionally, earlier this year, the company rolled out an ambitious three-phase growth plan. In February, Spirit Airlines secured a $125 million equity investment and, less than a month later, announced that it would replace its entire MD-80 fleet by ordering 35 new Airbus aircraft with options to purchase another 50.

In step with this rapid expansion, the Spirit pilots are adapting and growing as well. The pilot group invested in the airline’s future by granting some contractual relief to enable the airline to acquire the new aircraft and to ensure a smooth fleet transition. In addition, training on the new aircraft has already begun, with 30 crews set to meet a December 1 target date.

Spirit Airlines’ growth plan also includes the addition of new cities and routes this fall. The company recently announced that it will be launching service from Providence, R.I., to three cities beginning in late October, and service to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted Spirit authority to fly to 11 Caribbean destinations.

To meet the demand, management has hired furloughed pilots from Delta, TWA, US Airways, and American. The pilot group has welcomed the new hires whose experience and input both as pilots and as union members have proven invaluable as the Master Executive Council addresses such issues as the transition to new aircraft and preferential bidding.

All of this change has kept the MEC and the Grievance and Negotiating Committees busy, but they’ve remained focused on their main goal of contract enforcement. "Our company’s plan for growth has a significant effect on our pilots in day-to-day operations, professional growth, and plans for their futures," says the MEC chairman, Capt. Bruce Vonada. "That’s why management’s adhering to the contract is so important. We want to make sure that Spirit recognizes our pilots’ contributions to advancing the company’s goals," he adds.

A history of expansion

Spirit Airlines’ 14-year history is marked by consistent growth. Founded in 1980 as Charter One, the airline began as a Detroit-based charter tour operator providing travel packages to entertainment destinations such as Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas. In 1992 Charter One brought jet equipment into the fleet, changed its name to Spirit Airlines, and inaugurated service from Detroit to Atlantic City.

Over the last 12 years, Spirit, the largest privately held airline in the United States, expanded rapidly, adding service throughout the United States, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The company relocated its headquarters to Miramar, Fla., in 1999.

As Spirit has changed and grown, the pilot group has adapted as well. For example, the pilots demonstrated their adaptability when they ratified a 4-year collective bargaining agreement in February 2003. The parties began negotiating this agreement in September 2002. Spirit management approached the pilots in December 2002 with a request that the two parties try to reach agreement by the amendable date of Jan. 31, 2003, to enable the company to pursue new sources of capital. Spirit pilots and management launched an aggressive negotiating schedule, substantially increasing the number of sessions, to meet this objective.

Just 5 months after talks began, they culminated in a collective-bargaining agreement that provides improvements in compensation and work rules for Spirit pilots, as well as efficiency gains that management had sought.

At press time, 18 months after the new contract took effect, the MEC and members of the Grievance and Negotiating Committees were meeting with management on a regular basis to address pre-grievance contract noncompliance issues, grievances, and other pilot concerns. In June, the MEC met with management and settled 20 grievances and signed four Letters of Agreement, including one pertaining to NavTech, a web-based bidline selection system, and another pertaining to implementing the Cockpit Access Security System (CASS). In August, the MEC and management met again and signed two additional LOAs and a Letter of Understanding.

With NavTech, the pilots will move to a paperless system for submitting monthly bids and trip trades, drops, and pick-ups. The software is in place, and the pilots have been working with management on program specifications and initial testing. Capt. Vonada sees this as a necessary step to make accessing information and submitting bids easier for pilots. More importantly, he says, the new system, once in place, will ensure a fairer process because scheduling will be based solely on seniority.

The pilot group also successfully negotiated Spirit’s participation in the CASS program, and the MEC is confident that the program will be implemented as soon as the 6-month test period ends. Capt. Vonada explains that "CASS is a natural extension of our open policy of taking all jumpseaters" despite management’s recent actions to inhibit jumpseaters from moving up to Spirit Plus class.

The Spirit pilots’ Grievance Committee chairman, Capt. Brian Millette, characterizes the meetings with management as "professional" and cites progress in areas such as the LOAs to implement the NavTech system and CASS, as well as management’s agreeing to lower the reserve availability requirement from 15 to 10 percent for automatic approval of floating vacation--a major improvement that the pilot group worked hard to achieve.

Despite this progress, Capt. Millette expresses frustration at what he terms management’s reinterpretation of certain areas of the contract. For example, differences in contract interpretation of pay during transition and the "look back" procedures that Spirit’s management is applying to the monthly guarantee are still unresolved. Preferential bidding is another contentious issue. Although management has not yet sent a formal proposal to the MEC, it has requested that a study group be established and the pilots’ Negotiating Committee is reviewing this request.

To deal with these issues, the MEC and the Grievance Committee are using their pilot-to-pilot program as an effective means to educate the pilots about their contract and to enhance their awareness of their rights under the contract. Capt. Millette regularly publishes a "Pilot-to-Pilot" newsletter, which lays out the grievances the pilot group has made to management and explains the issues addressed during the meetings with management. The newsletters have the added effect of holding management accountable for following the contract.

Clearly, the Spirit pilots have proven that they are willing to work with management to achieve the company’s goals for growth. At the same time, the pilots remain steadfast in their goal to "enforce the contract as written and intended." That goal is the focus of every message sent to the pilots. "Fly safely and fly the contract" is the guiding motto as Spirit pilots adapt and look to the future.