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Spirit Airlines nears deadline with pilots

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[June 11, 2010]  BANGKOK (AP) -- Negotiations between Spirit Airlines and its pilots were entering their final stage on Friday, with pilots threatening to walk out at midnight if they don't get a new contract.

Both sides have said they would rather make a deal, and strike threats are a common feature of the endgame of airline negotiations.

Still, a Spirit strike could disrupt the travel plans for thousands of passengers this weekend. The airline on Thursday began canceling some flights in advance.

Spirit pilots have said their pay lags that of competitors like JetBlue Airways Corp. and AirTran Airlines, part of AirTran Holdings Inc.

"We are looking for pay parity," said Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and the head of the Air Line Pilots Association unit there, in a recent interview. "We're not looking to be industry leading. ... We're not looking to place the company at an economic disadvantage."

Negotiations were being conducted in Washington and directed by the National Mediation Board. If there's no deal, pilots could strike as early as 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday. Presidents can halt airline strikes, but that was considered unlikely because of Spirit's small size. It runs roughly 150 flights per day, compared to 6,200 for Delta Air Lines Inc., the world's largest carrier.

Spirit is based in Miramar, Fla., and most of its flights originate in the Eastern U.S. and connect to the Caribbean, many of them through its hub at Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It dubs itself an ultra low-cost carrier, and says that some of its tickets go for $9. It attracted notice recently when it announced that beginning Aug. 1 it would charge passengers up to $45 for carry-on bags.

The airline is privately held. Creed said pilots got along well with Spirit's previous owners, but the current owners have shown "a marked difference in how they treated employees."

Spirit declined to make CEO Ben Baldanza available for an interview in the days before the strike. On Wednesday it said it would operate through any strike with the help of other air carriers, but spokeswoman Misty Pinson did not offer details. Then, on Thursday, it began canceling flights.

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"Although Spirit remains committed to reaching a fair and equitable deal, we are taking precautionary and proactive measures to shield our customers," Pinson wrote in an e-mail. She said customers were being contacted with alternate travel options. She didn't respond to requests for details.

A check by The Associated Press on Thursday showed that Spirit is not selling tickets for any flights on Saturday or Sunday. A reservations agent told the AP that all weekend flights out of its main hub at Fort Lauderdale had been "suspended."

Pilots have seen no sign of preparations to keep flying, and many management pilots have promised not to cross the picket line, Creed said.

While workers in other industries, and airline workers in Europe, are relatively free to strike, U.S. airline workers are bound by the rules of the Railway Labor Act, which tightly restricts work actions in the interest of keeping the transportation system moving. That makes U.S. airline strikes relatively rare. The Spirit pilot contract has been up for changes since January 2007.

[Associated Press; By JOSHUA FREED]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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