Spirit Airlines and its striking pilots agreed to meet with mediators on Tuesday, the union said, signaling a potential thaw that would be welcomed by the thousands of customers holding tickets on the grounded airline.
Sean Creed, the head of the pilot union at Spirit, said the National Mediation Board has asked both sides to meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. However, union officials said the strike would continue until they approve any deal.
Spirit said it wouldn't fly until Thursday at the earliest, forcing its roughly 16,000 daily passengers to get where they were going by rental car or an expensive walk-up fare on another airline. Spirit carries just 1 percent of the nation's air traffic, but those travelers have been 100 percent grounded by the pilot walkout.
Spirit is usually the biggest carrier at Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey. On Monday two of its planes sat idle on the ramp, 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 aircraft have not flown since pilots walked out on Saturday in a pay dispute. Just a few days before the strike it was saying publicly that it would fly through it. That didn't happen. It has said it would try to get passengers onto flights on other airlines. 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.
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.
The two airlines likely to benefit most from the Spirit strike are AMR Corp.'s American, followed by JetBlue, airline analyst Daniel McKenzie of Hudson Securities wrote in a note on Monday.
From Miami, American serves 32 cities of the 37 cities served by Spirit from its hub in nearby Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue overlaps with spirit on eight markets from Fort Lauderdale, he wrote.
Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, N.J., contributed to this report.