Comedian says she's still D-lister

Kathy Griffin

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A strike by Spirit Airlines pilots has shut down the discount carrier, stranding thousands of travelers.

The walkout, which began Saturday, forced the airline to cancel its flights for Saturday and today. Its CEO said no talks were scheduled with picketing pilots.

Spirit carries 16,680 passengers per day -- about 1 percent of the U.S. total -- mostly between the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean and Latin America. But its shutdown is causing major problems for its fliers.

Spirit tickets are good only on a handful of other carriers, and only if there's space on the flight. The airline said it was refunding fares for Saturday flights plus a $100 credit toward future flights. It was trying to get its passengers booked onto other airlines.

People who needed to replace their Spirit tickets found the cost of same-day fares on other airlines was two- to three times more than their tickets.

That was out of the question for Junior Elliott, a 67-year-old mason from St. Ann's parish in Jamaica, who was stranded in Fort Lauderdale while traveling to New York for a cousin's funeral.

Elliott was unable to buy new tickets until his fare was refunded to his debit card. He had no cell phone, no U.S. currency, and nowhere to sleep but the terminal's seats.

"It's bad now, man," Elliott said. "I can't even buy a cup of coffee."

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is Spirit's main hub, where it is the only airline to 14 international cities and five U.S. destinations, said airport spokesman Greg Meyer. Around the country Spirit runs roughly 150 flights per day. In South Carolina, the airline services Myrtle Beach International Airport.

The Spirit terminal, usually the busiest in Fort Lauderdale, was full of angry travelers desperate to return home or start trips on Saturday. Extra Spirit staff and local police officers were posted in the ticketing area.

Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said in an interview that he hoped to get some of Spirit's 31 aircraft flying soon with management pilots or others who cross the picket line, but that no such flights took place on Saturday.

He said Spirit has lined up one airplane from another air carrier -- he declined to say which one -- to complete a few flights. He was hoping to add other carriers in the days ahead.

Spirit pilots have said their pay lags competitors such as AirTran Airways and JetBlue. The airline and its pilots had been negotiating for more than three years.

Pilots "will not return to the cockpit until a fair and equitable contract is negotiated," Sean Creed, a Spirit captain and head of its Air Line Pilots Association unit, said in a statement on the union's website.