A Spirit A320neo prepares to depart Harry Reid International Airport. Photo: F/O Tyler Gaston (Spirit)
Spirit Airlines pilots have weathered almost 40 years of ups and downs, and 2022 brought much uncertainty for the pilot group. The lingering effects of COVID-19, operational challenges, the failed merger with Frontier Airlines followed by an immediate new merger agreement with JetBlue Airways (which was later passed by stockholders), and dramatic changes in the pilot labor market that put Spirit pilots well behind their peers made 2022 a difficult year.
“Our pilots can’t bank on improved compensation and work rules that might come if and when we merge with JetBlue, which could be years down the line,” said Capt. Ryan Muller, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “We approached management several times to advocate for the contract improvements needed to stem attrition, ensure Spirit remains an attractive option for pilot candidates, and address the operational impact of staffing challenges.”
The Negotiating Committee began preparations for Section 6 negotiations amid the proposed merger and an unknown future, seeking the market-based contract necessary to attract and retain pilots. The pilots’ last agreement was ratified in March 2018. Since then, the industry has changed dramatically, and improvements to regional pilot contracts further pressured Spirit’s ability to hire and address the unprecedented pilot attrition.
“To be an attractive alternative to legacy carriers, Spirit must offer pilots a contract commensurate with their skills and value,” continued Muller. “The airline can’t thrive if it can’t attract and retain pilots.”
The proposed merger with JetBlue provides Spirit pilots multiple bargaining opportunities in the coming years, so the MEC took a focused approach to Section 6 negotiations that began in September. The goal of this round of bargaining was to address the key economic and quality-of-life improvements Spirit needs to attract and retain pilots. This approach sets the pilot group up for further gains in future bargaining opportunities, including a transition and process agreement and joint collective bargaining agreement with JetBlue should the merger gain regulatory approval.
“Whether we ultimately merge with JetBlue or end up as a stand-alone airline, our legacy must be a career destination for our pilots,” said Muller. “Through Section 6 negotiations and internal processes, the MEC is focused on addressing the needs of our pilots today while also working closely with the JetBlue MEC to prepare for joint bargaining.”
On December 8, the MEC and management reached a tentative agreement for an amended contract addressing pay, retirement, and other key gains with no concessions. On Jan. 10, 2023, the pilot group ratified the agreement with 69 percent voting in favor of the deal. The new contract went into effect retroactively on January 1.
Internally, the MEC has concentrated on building up its committees and infrastructure to better support Spirit pilots. The Grievance Committee has grown significantly over the past two years, a direct response to increases in contract violations by management. In 2022, the committee facilitated the return of more than $1 million to the pilot group.
Other internal efforts have centered on enhancing communication with the pilots. The MEC introduced the DART system to efficiently address pilot questions and concerns, a YouTube channel with a collection of informational videos updated regularly, and an MEC podcast where pilots can hear directly from their union leaders.
“As our airline grows, so, too, must the union and our company,” Muller remarked. “We’re a major airline now, and management needs to act like it by scaling up its processes, hiring more people, upgrading equipment, and investing in its pilots to reach the heights it’s expecting of us.”
Demand for air travel, especially leisure travel, continues to be strong. The gains in the new contract will help Spirit keep up with demand and support the company’s projected growth and value as a merger partner for JetBlue. As these gains take effect, the pilots look forward to continuing to improve their compensation and work rules through the upcoming bargaining opportunities.