Image: stranded travelers
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
Mike Binger, left, and Jackie Vongsiri, third from left, try to figure out how to get back to Chicago from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after being told by a Spirit Airlines employee Monday that all flights were canceled.
By
updated 6/15/2010 5:28:27 PM ET 2010-06-15T21:28:27

Spirit Airlines and its striking pilots started negotiating again on Tuesday, looking for common ground to end a four-day-old walkout that has grounded the discount carrier.

Spirit canceled all of its flights through Thursday. It also furloughed its flight attendants until the strike ends, said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The strike began Saturday, when pilots rejected a company offer because they wanted larger raises than Spirit was offering. Spirit hasn't flown since then.

The National Mediation Board asked pilots and the company to meet on Tuesday to see if there was anything for the two sides to talk about, said Andy Nelson, vice chairman of the council for the Spirit branch of the Air Line Pilots Association. He said it is progressing to an exchange of proposals and full negotiations.

"I'm assuming they'll do it as long as there are fruitful negotiations," he said.

The talks could still fall apart, and the union said the strike would continue until there's a deal.

"We must remain prepared to be on strike for many more days if necessary," the union told pilots in a hot line message. The message also said that the furloughs are aimed at increasing pressure during the strike.

A Spirit spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the furloughs or the negotiations.

Normally the airline carries roughly 16,000 passengers per day, or about 1 percent of the nation's air traffic. Its biggest hub is in Fort Lauderdale, with flights to U.S. cities including Detroit and Atlantic City, N.J., as well as the Caribbean and Latin America.

Stranded travelers
On Monday, two of Spirit planes sat idle on the ramp at Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey, and only a few people were near its ticket counters.

One of them was Macedonian exchange student Dale Velevski, who knew his flight to Michigan had been canceled, though no one had told him why. Sitting alone with his suitcase on a chair in the nearly deserted terminal, Velevski resigned himself to spending the next 24 hours — at a minimum — at the airport. He had no money for a hotel.

"I'm going to sleep here," he said. "It's my only choice. I'm very tired, though."

The airline is offering customers credit for future flights, plus $100. But if they want refunds instead, customers have to call the airline and ask for one.

Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson declined to say on Monday how many passengers had gotten seats on other carriers with Spirit's help.

Joe Brancatelli, an air travel expert who runs a travel blog, said Spirit's policy of encouraging credit for future travel rather than a refund made it harder for customers to get their money back.

"Everything they've done maximizes the pain on the passenger, minimizes their financial exposure," he said.

Spirit customers trying to rent cars or book a walk-up ticket on another airline often found themselves paying far more than the price of their original airline ticket.

Lee Maron was forced to rent a car to get home to Boston after flying to Atlantic City for a bar mitzvah. She was unimpressed by the voucher for future travel on an airline that she predicted wouldn't be around for long.

"Giving me a voucher and a credit for something that won't exist is like getting a bad Christmas gift," she said.

Pay dispute
JetBlue says the pilots strike at Spirit Airlines gives it a "relatively small benefit," because most Spirit passengers are canceling rather than looking for alternate airlines.

Chief Financial Officer Robin Hayes made the comments at an investor conference in New York on Tuesday. JetBlue overlaps Spirit on eight routes out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Spirit's base.

The U.S. Transportation Department said it had received no passenger complaints about getting refunds from Spirit since the strike began.

Spirit has said that its last offer would have raised pilot pay by 29 percent over five years, although pilots would have to work more to get that money. Pilots have been negotiating for more than three years, and they've said that the proposed raise works out to less than 4 percent per year.

Pilots have said their pay should be similar to other discount airlines like JetBlue Airways Corp. and AirTran Airways, a unit of AirTran Holdings Inc. The company has said those other airlines are much bigger than Spirit.

Privately held Spirit is based in Miramar, Fla., and ended 2009 with $139.5 million in cash and short-term investments, according to filings with the government.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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