Spirit Airlines pilots picket at O’Hare as contract frustration grows

Spirit Airlines pilots walked the picket line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport today to show their unity in the prolonged battle for a new contract with an ultra-low-fare carrier that has aggressively been growing its presence at O’Hare and other airports nationwide.

Right now Spirit pilots are frustrated.

Talks with Spirit management, overseen by the National Mediation Board, have broken down. And in an interview today, Spirit captain Paul Slotten, who is a member of the pilot negotiating team, said no further talks have been scheduled.

If the NMB does decide to release Spirit pilots from negotiations, the pilots could call a strike. Slotten did not indicate a strike was imminent. But last month, 100 percent of participating Spirit pilots voted to call for a strike if they were released from negotiations.

Spirit pilots have been talking to management about a new contract since February of 2015. At issue, first and foremost, is compensation. Slotten argued that Spirit’s compensation has to become more competitive if the airline is going to attract competent pilots.

And per Slotten, Spirit is going to need a lot of new pilots.

Slotten noted: “Spirit wants to grow tremendously.” He said the carrier wants to add 125 new routes over the next five years and add 60 new aircraft, which Slotten figures will require 1,500 new pilots. Spirit currently has about 35 daily departures from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Slotten also said Spirit will be competing for pilots with legacy carriers such as United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) and American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL), which the Spirit pilots union estimates will altogether hire as many as 10,000 pilots over the next five years.

Aside from competitive compensation, Spirit pilots also want a new contract that does a better job of protecting them in the event of serious illness or a possible merger with another carrier, among other job security issues.

Despite the stalled talks, Slotten sounded an optimistic note this morning: “I think we can get this done if we can get management back to the table.”

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