Spirit Pilots
A320neos at Fort Worth Alliance Airport. (Photo: Dayon Wong)

The pilots of Spirit Airlines entered 2021 on a high note, having weathered the challenges brought about by the pandemic. Pilots stepped up by taking voluntary three-, six-, and eight-month leaves of absence that prevented any furloughs from occurring on the property.

As industry observers had predicted, Spirit and other ultra-low-cost carriers were the first airlines to begin recovery from the global pandemic. Suppressed desire for vacation travel fueled strong bookings, enough so that Spirit had almost returned to its pre-2019 capacity by midsummer. To be prepared for the increased demand, Spirit led the way with the resumption of pilot hiring and captain upgrades in early 2021. Last year, Spirit hired 395 pilots and upgraded 165 pilots to captain.

But cracks in Spirit’s infrastructure began to develop as early as April, when the carrier suffered weather-related disruptions that forced the cancellation of dozens of flights. And at the height of the summer travel season in late July, Spirit suffered an 11-day operational disruption that canceled thousands of flights and stranded crews, passengers, and aircraft across the country. It cost the airline an estimated $50 million in deferred revenue.

“We alerted the company about our concerns that our IT and crew scheduling phone systems were ridden with problems even in the best of times,” said Capt. Ryan Muller, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “When the meltdown hit, it took pilots hours to reach scheduling, if at all.”

While 2021 certainly had its challenges, the MEC continues to position itself for the growth ahead and for future opportunities. The pilot group opened a new and much larger MEC office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; implemented ALPA’s Data Action Report (DART) system for pilot inquiries; launched a new MEC website and a new YouTube channel; and is expected to begin an MEC podcast in early 2022.

In a particularly promising development, in mid-December the MEC and management reaffirmed their commitment to a just safety culture at the company by ensuring that key, industry-leading contract protections against discipline for accepted Aviation Safety Action Program reports were carried over to company reporting programs as well.

The MEC’s Negotiating Committee has also been preparing for Section 6 bargaining. The current collective bargaining agreement becomes amendable in 2023, and bargaining can begin as early as Sept. 1, 2022. Negotiators have been meeting each month and have conducted web and telephone surveys to determine pilot preferences that will be incorporated into the pilot group’s proposals. The committee also developed a comprehensive three-part contract-comparison document so that pilots can see where they stand in relation to their peers.

The next contract will cover a much larger pilot group, since Spirit plans to hire approximately 800 pilots in 2022 alone and looks to surpass 4,000 pilots. With the addition of more pilots, the pilot group, now ALPA’s sixth-largest, expects to come under ALPA’s Group “A” in the near term.

The company is doubling down on its growth. Spirit is expected to add 24 aircraft in 2022 and another 33 in 2023, according to the published fleet plan. It brought back all 31 of its smallest aircraft, the Airbus A319, which had been parked in 2020, to partially offset slower deliveries of new aircraft from Airbus. It’s begun service to new destination cities like St. Louis, Mo.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Louisville, Ky.; and Manchester, N.H.; expanded flying at hubs like Atlantic City, N.J.; and acquired new gates at Los Angeles International and La Guardia Airports.

Muller indicated the future is bright for Spirit, assuming the company has the foresight to build its infrastructure as rapidly as its route map and fleet.

“We’re a major airline now, and the company needs to act like one,” said. Muller. “It can’t just keep hiring crews. It needs to scale up the processes and invest in upgraded equipment for Spirit to reach the heights it’s expecting of us.”