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Federal court orders Spirit pilots back to work after chaos at Fort Lauderdale airport

Chaos erupts at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after angry passengers fight over canceled flights. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)
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A federal court granted Spirit Airlines a temporary restraining order Tuesday, compelling the pilots’ union to return to status quo after what the airlines says has been “a pervasive illegal work slowdown” that caused hundreds of flight cancellations and disrupted travel for more than 20,000 passengers in the past week.

The pilots union said Spirit Airlines pilots will fully comply with the court to help restore normal operations.

“We are hopeful that we can put this moment behind us and get back to serving our customers,” Spirit Airlines spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement.

The U.S. District Court ruling comes a day after anger and confusion boiled over at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Monday night as nine Spirit Airlines flights were canceled, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded, according to airport officials.

What followed was chaos as frustrated passengers clashed with Spirit employees, and law enforcement officers tried to maintain order.

Video from the airport showed crowds clustered around Spirit Airlines ticket counters, with people pushing, screaming and cursing.

At one point in one of the videos, the stanchions holding in the line were knocked over, and a Broward County sheriff’s deputy was shoved to the ground. Sheriff’s deputies detained three passengers and charged them with disorderly conduct, according to arrest reports.

The flight cancellations were reportedly the result of a legal dispute between the budget airline and the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA).

In a statement to The Washington Post, Spirit Airlines blamed its pilots for the cancellations and the resulting chaos. About 300 Spirit Airlines flights have been canceled in the past week, according to a lawsuit Spirit lawsuit filed against ALPA on Monday.

ALPA disputed the airline’s accusations. But on Tuesday afternoon it said Spirit pilots “are committed to helping impacted passengers and the company restore normal operations.

“The court has spoken and Spirit pilots will fully comply with the order handed down, which is completely in line with our overriding goal: the resumption of normal operations. We call on the company to join forces with ALPA and the Spirit pilots to do just that,” ALPA said in a statement

The pilot actions have impacted about 15 percent of flights across the network, Spirit said. The U.S. District Court in South Florida has scheduled a May 15 hearing for a preliminary injunction.

“We sincerely apologize to our customers for the disruption and inconveniences they have suffered,” Berry said. “We believe this is the result of intimidation tactics by a limited number of our pilots affecting the behavior of the larger group.”

Authorities say the behavior of a few passengers at Fort Lauderdale Monday night caused a crowd of about 500 people to “become enraged, fearful, or visually upset.” The incident, an arrest report said, “resembled the start of a riot.”

One of the passengers became “increasingly aggressive to the point of near violence” toward an airline employee, according to the arrest report. The passenger then “challenged deputies with threatened physical violence,” the report said.

“All of a sudden, one particular flight got canceled, and a mob ensued up here at the front counter, in front of everyone else who had been waiting in line,” passenger Paul Smith told the Fox News affiliate.

Another passenger told the station that Spirit employees “couldn’t handle what was going on, so they called in for the police.”

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“We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport,” Berry said.  “This is a result of unlawful labor activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by canceling multiple flights across our network. These pilots have put their quest for a new contract ahead of getting customers to their destinations and the safety of their fellow Spirit Team Members.”

Berry said the airline had filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the pilots union and others for “purposely and unlawfully disrupting the airline’s operations, leading to hundreds of canceled flights, which has negatively impacted thousands of Spirit customers’ travel plans.”

“So we reluctantly filed this suit to protect our customers’ and our operations,” Berry said. “This is clearly unlawful activity under the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the airline industry. ALPA and those individuals responsible should be held accountable.”

ALPA said earlier Tuesday that the two are “not engaged in a job action.”

“Rather, ALPA and the Spirit pilots are continuing to do everything possible to help restore the company’s operations, which have experienced significant problems over the past several days,” an ALPA representative told The Post in a statement. “While we will continue these efforts, we will actively defend the association, its officers and its member pilots against the unwarranted and counterproductive legal action brought (Monday) by Spirit Airlines.”

Spirit flight cancellations continued for the third day in a row Tuesday at Fort Lauderdale, airport officials said. The airport had had long lines all day Monday, as many travelers whose flights were canceled Sunday were trying to get on already full flights.

“There was just a couple of people that got agitated and they started screaming and yelling,” airport spokesman Greg Meyer said.  “It wasn’t a riot. It lasted a very, very short time.”

Thousands of  passengers are impacted by the cancellations. Flights from airports across the U.S., including Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, Minneapolis, Boston and Chicago have been canceled since Sunday, according to FlightWare, which keeps track of airline cancellations and delays.

Tygear Kelly was one of the hundreds of Spirit passengers stranded at Fort Lauderdale on Monday night, according to WFOR.

“It was chaotic; it was packed, this whole area was full of people,” Kelly told the station Tuesday morning. “I had to rebook my flight and everything. I missed my flight, I had to go back to the hotel where I was staying and I’m back here now to go back to New York.”

Spirit, a low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Fla., often advertises fares as low as about $20 or $30 each way.

But the series of cancellations could drive its customer satisfaction further down. Passenger satisfaction with Spirit dropped to 61 percent this year, and for a third year in a row the airline ranked last for customer satisfaction in the American Customer Satisfaction Index annual survey.

The airline in the past year has also ranked among the lowest for on-time performance, according to the latest Air Travel Consumer report by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some of its flights from Fort Lauderdale were among the most chronically delayed ones.

The mayhem in Fort Lauderdale was the latest in a string of high-profile, airline-related incidents captured on video.

Perhaps the most notorious came in April, when viral videos captured a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The incident caused a public-relations crisis for United, which initially defended itself by stating that the passenger, David Dao, had “refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily.”

Dao and United eventually reached an “amicable” settlement for an undisclosed amount, the airline said.

A few weeks after United’s dragging fiasco, American Airlines grounded a flight attendant after a video showed a confrontation between him and a passenger, allegedly after removing a woman’s baby stroller from the plane. Also in late April, a Delta Air Lines passenger said he was kicked off a plane for using the restroom; a few days later, a video emerged showing a Delta pilot hitting a passenger on the Jetway in Atlanta. The airline said the pilot was trying to break up a fight.

Earlier this month, a Southern California father posted video showing him and his family being booted from a Delta flight after refusing to give up a seat for their toddler. They had bought the seat for their teenage son and were attempting to use it for his 2-year-old sibling, The Post’s Lindsey Bever reported.

The airline eventually apologized and offered a refund and “additional compensation.”

Deep into this season of viral air-travel incidents, several airline executives came to Washington, where they got a brutal lashing on Capitol Hill last week.

As The Post’s Peter Holley wrote, congressional panelists grilled United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives about unpopular policies that have infuriated customers and spawned viral videos, such as overbooked flights, hidden charges and absurdly confusing contracts.

The result, according to Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), is “lowered expectations” that lead many to believe that flying is “a horrible experience.” …

“We’re all sick of it,” Capuano added.

By the end of the four-hour hearing — which also included statements from executives at American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines — Capuano’s surprisingly candid language was among the tamest blows that airline executives absorbed. The lawmakers’ collective message: Fix your airlines, or expect to hear back from us.

Said Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.): “How much do you hate the American people?”

Whether it's an overbooked flight or getting stuck on a tarmac, this is what you need to know about your rights when common flight troubles come up. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

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