UPDATE: On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against the pilot union. The union said it will comply with the order.

Over the weekend, Spirit Airlines passengers took to social media to complain about delayed and canceled flights, with some saying they could not fly from busy airports.

The airline downplayed the issue, but on Monday, it took action. Spirit sued its pilots union in federal court for the Southern District of Florida, accusing pilots of “an unlawful job action,” designed to hurt the airline’s operations. Spirit pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, and the airline are at odds over a new collective bargaining agreement.

In some cases, the airline said in its complaint, pilots are even turning down a chance to make 200 percent of their pay for last-minute assignments. Usually, the airline said, it has no trouble finding pilots for those flights. Spirit also said union members have “engaged in a campaign to threaten and intimidate other pilots” who accept those and other last-minute assignments.

“We are disappointed that [the union] has decided to engage in this unlawful slowdown,” Spirit spokesman Paul Berry said in an email.  “This has led to canceled flights and prevented our customers from taking their planned travel, all for the sole purpose of influencing current labor negotiations.”

This sort of back-and-forth is not unusual in the airline industry. Pilots have considerable latitude in how and when they fly, and during contentious labor negotiations, they may try to do the bare minimum. But that is generally a violation of the Railway Labor Act, which requires pilots to roughly work as they did before negotiations.

In its complaint, Spirit said the action had gone on for seven days, causing the airline to cancel roughly 300 flights, including 81 on Sunday because of a lack of pilots. The airline said the action had cost it roughly $8.5 million in lost revenue, and said problems have been concentrated in Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas and Detroit.

A spokesman for the union, known informally as ALPA, denied the charges and called the litigation, “unwarranted and counterproductive.”

The pilots “are not engaged in a job action,” the spokesman said. “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.”

Still, in these cases, airlines often prevail. In 2011, a federal judge in North Carolina ordered US Airways pilots to stop sabotaging the carrier’s operations, after more flights than usual were delayed because of pilot decisions.

Spirit’s union expected this suit. On May 5, it put out a memo to pilots telling them the airline had canceled more flights than usual during the week. It told pilots it knew the company was annoyed by the operational miscues, and was threatening to take legal action. It reminded many pilots that various airlines had been successful in court against pilot unions, over time.

The [union leadership] wants no misunderstanding on this matter—we mean what we say and are not sending any “coded” or hidden messages,” the memo said. “To be clear: if Spirit’s operations continue to deteriorate and are not restored quickly we will be subject to litigation, which will undermine our bargaining efforts and delay our timeline.”

Here’s the full version of Spirit’s complaint.

Download (PDF, 622KB)

Photo Credit: Spirit Airlines has sued its pilot union, accusing pilots of purposely slowing the carrier's operations. The company and the pilots are trying to negotiate a new contract. Spirit Airlines