By Joe Brancatelli
After more than three years of negotiating, the pilots of Spirit Airlines walked off the job on Saturday, June 12. Despite a bevy of claims from Spirit management, the airline had no back-up plan, made no attempt to protect its customers and has refused to allow travelers to change or cancel flights without a heavy change fee. That means about 15,000 flyers a day are stranded with no alternative except to find their own substitute flights at full fare on other carriers.

I've posted the latest details below. Like a Pinter play or a bad blog, you have to read backward for the full story since the newer posts are at the top. I'll update as necessary.

Spirit Airlines and its striking pilots reached a tentative contract agreement on Wednesday evening. And now the complications begin.

The airline, which has stranded about 100,000 travelers since Saturday without voluntarily refunding their money or arranging for alternative flights, says flights will resume on Friday, June 18. But its pilots are not so sure. The airline and the pilots are still hammering out back-to-work language and even the specifics of contract terms.

So when will Spirit, which normally transports about 16,000 passengers a day, really begin flying again? Since all airline operations are complicated and Spirit's aircraft are scattered around the Americas, it's likely that it will take two or three days before Spirit resumes its full schedule. Travelers who are on flights that Spirit will cancel without notice in the next few days will once again be faced with booking another airline at their full retail "walk-up" fare. No other airline honors Spirit tickets.

As usual, however, Spirit isn't telling its customers those inconvenient truths. Other than one line on its Web site, "Spirit will resume flight operations on Friday, June 18, 2010," Spirit is mum.

But never let it be said Spirit is letting a good crisis go to waste. Its home page is featuring a come-on box offering "strikingly low fares." It also seems to be offering $50 off as an inducement to get travelers to return.

Nothing is what it seems with Spirit, however. The $50 coupon must be used for nonrefundable bookings purchased by Friday night. And the discount doesn't apply to the airline's lowest fares. Oh, and the $50 deal isn't actually $50. It's just $25 if you buy a one-way ticket home after Spirit stranded you.

Meanwhile, Spirit still requires passengers whose flights were cancelled during the strike to call the airline's 800-number if they want an actual refund for services that the airline never rendered. If not, you'll be stuck with a Spirit "flight credit" that has an expiration date and can't be used on any other airline.

My Seat 2B column at Portfolio.com has just posted here. And who am I to argue with the editors, who pulled this line from my column to use as the "deck": Spirit has operated as the P.T. Barnum of airlines--management believes there's a bargain-hunting sucker born every minute--but its reaction to a pilotsí strike appalls even the most cynical airline-industry observers.

06/15/10, 9AM ET - NO GRUEL FOR YOU...
Spirit Airlines has cancelled its schedule for Thursday, June 17. The terms? Exactly the same. No refunds for passengers unless they wait endlessly on hold for the Spirit call center--or are smart enough to call their credit card company and contest the charge. And, no, there is still no reaccommodation policy from Spirit for any other days. Cancel and they charge you for the privilege.

But never let it be said that Spirit isn't constantly finding ways to show its contempt for customers. Should you have the temerity to demand your legal refund (and you can get them on the phone), you won't be getting that $100 "we're sorry" flight coupon. That's only for people who are dumb enough to accept a "flight credit" instead of getting their refund. This is how Spirit explained it today on its Web site: If you prefer to receive a full refund for the unflown portion of your reservation instead, please call 1 (800) 772-7117 and one of our Customer Service Representatives will assist you. (Customers who prefer to receive a refund instead of a future flight credit will not receive the additional $100 future flight credit.)

06/14/10, 11AM ET - WEDNESDAY? GONE, TOO
Spirit Airlines has cancelled its schedule for Wednesday, June 16. The terms? Exactly the same. No refunds for passengers unless they wait endlessly on hold for the Spirit call center--or are smart enough to call their credit card company and contest the charge. And, no, there is still no reaccommodation policy from Spirit for any other days. Cancel and they charge you for the privilege.

The latest wrinkle in the Spirit Airlines strike story? Spirit isn't issuing refunds after all. At least not voluntarily. It turns out the Florida-based airline is issuing a "flight credit" for the amount of the ticket you may have purchased for any flight that the carrier has now cancelled. If you want an actual refund, you have to CALL Spirit at its 800 number and proactively request the refund.

I have now tried three different times today to get through on its 800 number. Each time I abandoned the test call after 40-minute wait times.

Why would Spirit Airlines issue "flight credits" instead of a refund?

Well, for starters, it allows Spirit to hold the money that it has already collected. Second, there's what is called "breakage" on things such as rebate coupons, gift cards, flight credits and the like. A certain percentage of customers never use the credit. Spirit gets to keep the money of any passenger who doesn't demand a refund or use the flight credit. Worst of all, Spirit's "flight credit" expires in one year. That means there is additional breakage when customers don't use the flight credit in time.

Pretty sleazy, huh? Well, that's what Spirit Airlines does best. It is an airline built entirely around playing off passenger ignorance, regulatory laxity and pushing the legal envelope to the breaking point.

It goes hand and hand with the carrier's decision not to arrange for alternate transportation for customers whose itineraries they have disrupted. There are now travelers scattered throughout North and South America who are left with useless "flight credits" (no other carrier honors Spirit scrip, of course); no return flight; limited opportunity to book new seats with average load factors north of 80 percent; and faced with paying the full, unrestricted, walk-up fare for any seat they might find to get them home.

Moreover, Spirit continues to insist travelers pay a punitive change fee if they try to change or cancel their flights before the airline itself cancels the service. And, of course, Spirit didn't cancel Saturday's schedule until after 5 a.m. Saturday. It didn't cancel Sunday's flights until late Saturday afternoon. And Monday and Tuesday's flights weren't cancelled until Sunday. Got flights planned for Wednesday and beyond? You have to wait until Spirit decides what to do--unless you pay for your freedom.

Oh, wait, in fairness to Spirit, you should know: They'll give you an additional $100 flight credit if you're dumb enough to accept their scrip instead of fighting for your refund.

Of course, travelers who call their credit card companies will immediately get a credit against their cancelled Spirit flight because credit card firms cannot legally charge you for services that were not rendered. But how many people stupid enough to fly Spirit in the first place know their legal rights?

Spirit Airlines has now cancelled all flights on Monday, June 14, and Tuesday, June 15.

Reaccommodations? Nope. Spirit's plans to fly through the strike by making arrangements with other carriers? Apparently nonexistent. Which, of course, is no surprise since airlines historically have almost never been able to fly through a pilot's strike.

And shame on the general media boobs who last week parroted Spirit's transparently obvious claims that it was making arrangements to transport passengers through any potential strike.

There are no alternate arrangements. Travelers who were booked on Spirit are left with refunds or a Spirit "flight credit" for a future Spirit flight and no way to fly home or start their itinerary unless they can find another flight on another carrier on short notice and pay the full-fare, walk-up price.

Oh, and in case you're wondering: Anyone booked to fly on Spirit from Wednesday onward is still trapped. Spirit won't let them change or cancel their bookings without paying the heavy rebooking fee. Travelers are only off the hook when Spirit cancels.

The airline's approximately 450 pilots walked off the job early Saturday morning after nearly four years of negotiations. Spirit operates about 150 flights a day, mostly within the United States, but also into the Caribbean and Latin America.

06/12/10, 7:30PM ET - NEVER ON SUNDAY AT SPIRIT...
Spirit Airlines has now cancelled its entire flight schedule for tomorrow, June 13, to go with its early-morning cancellation of today's flights.

It's important to understand that Spirit has now stranded about 30,000 people (the airline carries about 15,000 passengers a day) without offering an alternative. No travelers have been protected with any other carrier. That's not only in direct contradiction to what Spirit chief executive Ben Baldanza claimed--at various times, he has insisted he would shut the airline, continue flying and/or had made arrangements with other carriers to handle passengers--but it is also not what other airlines do when they face a strike. Moreover, Spirit passengers have been barred from canceling or changing their flights before Spirit announced the cancellations because the carrier insisted on charging its punitive change fee.

So that means about 15,000 people (so far) have had their trip taken from them at the last minute and now must face the reality of buying retail, full-fare, walk-up tickets on other airlines if they wish to salvage their itinerary. And about 15,000 travelers are stranded someplace other than home. They now must make their own way home--and pay the full-fare, one-way price demanded by any other carrier that might fly their route.

And what of next week's travelers on Spirit? Since the airline has still not posted a reaccommodation policy, they face heavy cancellation fees if they cancel their trips or change their travel plans before Spirit officially dumps its schedule.

I trust you now understand why I recommended months ago that Spirit is not an airline you should fly regardless of price or situation.

Spirit Airlines is now on strike and, of course, everything that Spirit management claimed about its ability or willingness to protect passengers was untrue.

The airline and its pilots, who have been negotiating for almost four years, talked until about 5 a.m. this morning, about five hours past the official strike deadline. No agreement was reached, however, and pilots then walked off the job.

Spirit then cancelled all of its flights today. Since Spirit (to my knowledge) does not interline with any other carrier, if you were scheduled to fly today, you're on your own. You are entitled to a full refund, of course, but nothing else. Any alternate arrangements you make will be at prevailing fares with no help from Spirit. (Spirit says it is processing "flight credits" and offering flyers a $100 credit against a future flight, but I'd call your credit card company directly and dispute the charge now. Credit card firms cannot charge you for services not delivered.)

The days ahead? As it has done in the run-up to the strike, Spirit Airlines management is maximizing the pain on its flyers. It has made no announcement about tomorrow's schedule nor has it made any arrangement to allow travelers to change their plans without penalty. Since they offered no protection to flyers booked today, there is no reason to think that any of its customers will be protected in the days to come.

I hope that you listened to my suggestion months ago and stopped booking Spirit. It's not reliable and it has a proven reputation for misleading flyers and abandoning them at its corporate convenience.

Spirit Airlines has already canceled some flights scheduled to operate this weekend, but in its typically secretive and squirrelly fashion. Spirit apparently doesn't want passengers to know that it faces a strike by its pilots starting on Saturday (June 12).

As of the close of business today, Spirit has made no mention of the strike on its Web site nor has it posted a reaccommodation policy for customers who might be caught in the strike. Scheduled to fly Spirit and want to cancel your reservations? Too bad, says Spirit. It's business as usual. If you cancel before they cancel, you must pay the standard penalties of $100 or more. Flyers who have called the airline's reservation line say Spirit agents insist flights will operate normally. The airline officially claims that the strike won't affect operations because it has arranged with other carriers to service its flyers. Spirit won't give any details, however, and I can't find a single shred of evidence to support the claim.

Of course, last month, when the National Mediation Board released the two sides into a 30-day cooling off period that ends at midnight Friday (June 11), Spirit said it might shut down forever if the pilots went on strike. If you're due to fly on Spirit in the next few days, I have a simple question: Why are you flying this sad excuse for an airline anyway? Here's the company's reservations line: 800-772-7117. Lots of luck. You're going to need it. By the way, Spirit and its pilots have been negotiating for more than three years without coming to an agreement.

After more than three years of negotiations, the National Mediation Board has released Spirit Airlines and its pilots into a legally mandated 30-day cooling-off period. The pilots say they'll strike on June 12 if there is no contract agreement. Spirit has about 450 pilots, operates approximately 150 flights a day and carries about 15,000 passengers each day.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.