Spirit Airline’s passenger brawl, labor dispute deliver punch to reputation

As if canceled flights and an alleged work slowdown weren’t bad enough, the airline watches an airport fisticuffs go viral on social media.

Writing a crisis comms plan for your organization?

Here’s a scenario to add your list of PR nightmares: a labor dispute, a lawsuit against an employees’ union, a customer brawl and social media thrashing—all rolled together.

That’s what Spirit Airlines is facing as a labor clash with unhappy pilots and their union led to canceled flights and a wild fisticuffs among passengers at a Florida airport Monday.

The airline won a legal—if not reputational—battle Tuesday when a federal court issued a temporary restraining order barring pilots from interfering with Spirit’s operations.

Spirit was just the latest airline to find itself navigating flak-riddled skies. In recent weeks, United Airlines detonated a PR stink bomb by dragging a passenger off an overbooked flight. Not to be one-upped, Delta kicked a family off a flight as security guards threatened the parents with jail and losing their children to fostercare.

The Florida brawl occurred as hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed over the past week. After passengers began throwing punches, deputies broke up the fight at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

A federal judge said Tuesday that the airline seemed justified in its claim that the pilots were violating the law by not performing their usual flight operations.

Disrupting 20,000 travelers

In the lawsuit, filed Monday with U.S. District Court’s Southern District of Florida, Spirit blamed several pilots and the union for an “illegal work slowdown that has caused approximately 300 flight cancellations and has disrupted the travel plans of over 20,000 customers.” The airline said this has cost it $8.5 million and caused “irreparable harm to its goodwill with its customers.”

“We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport,” Spirit spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement to PR Daily. “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.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, which the airline sued along with the 11 Spirit pilots, disputes this and says it and the captains and first officers 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,” ALPA told The Washington Post. “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 by Spirit Airlines.”

The union did not respond to a PR Daily request for comment before our deadline landed with a thump on our editorial runway. An April press release, however, made clear that the union thinks the airline has plenty of cash to handle workers’ demands.

“Since we started current negotiations in February 2015, the company has made more than $642 million in net profits,” Capt. Stuart Morrison, a Spirit employee, said in the statement. “While pilots at comparable airlines have seen substantial improvements in compensation, our pilots continue to work under a seven-year-old agreement that puts us well below the industry standard.”

The wrong kind of headlines

Whoever’s to blame for the impasse, the brawl drew just the kind of headlines no organization wants. USA Today (“Angry passengers brawl after Spirit cancels flights“), The Washington Post (“Furious passengers clash with Spirit Airlines employees and police atFort Lauderdale airport“) and The New York Times (“Violence Erupts at a Florida Airport After Spirit Airlines Cancellations“) were just a few of the news media behemoths to weigh in from coast to coast.

Here’s how TMZ described it: “PISSED OFF PASSENGERS BRAWL After 11 Flights Canceled.”

“Spirit Airlines shoulda seen it coming—a group of angry passengers escalated their rage into a full-on brawl that included cops following the airline’s cancellation of 11 flights at a Florida airport,” the celebrity news website reported.

If there’s a reputational upside to this, the Passengers Behaving Badly angle ensured that Spirit’s lawsuit against some of its employees and their union landed deep in most stories.

Naturally, Twitter users stampeded toward the topic like irate passengers rushing a customer service desk.

Just what any organization wants: a public spanking from a U.S. senator before all the facts are in. Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal took the airline to the woodshed with a tweet that made clear which side he was blaming.

Social media posts about the fight were mixed in with tweets about stranded passengers and other frustrations of modern air travel.

At least one person piggybacked the issue to get in a dig at United Airlines.

So it all starts again. Airline crisis. Social media roasting. Politicians fulminating. And, of course, the apology from the company—though Spirit’s came through a spokesman and not its CEO.

“We are hopeful,” Berry said Tuesday, “that we can put this moment behind us and get back to serving our customers.”

(Image by Tomás Del Coro, via)


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