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Airport chaos, flights canceled: Spirit Airlines apologizes

Irate passengers swarmed ticket counters and some started a near-riot at a Florida airport this week after Spirit Airlines canceled nine flights, blaming the decision on pilots' failure to show up.

Hundreds were left stranded at a terminal in Fort Lauderdale late Monday. The chaos was the latest instance of airlines dealing with high-profile customer frustration.

Problems began last month with cellphone video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight. Other horror stories from customers surfaced later involving flights on Delta and American airlines.

Deputies arrested three people from New York at the Fort Lauderdale airport. They were charged with inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing.

The Broward Sheriff's Office said about 500 people were crowded into Spirit's terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport late Monday night after the airline canceled the flights because there were no pilots. Video posted online showed deputies grappling with screaming passengers and breaking up fights.

The discount airline, based in Miramar, Fla., said pilots are refusing to accept open flying assignments.

Spirit alleges that their refusal is an illegal and concerted plot by the Air Line Pilots Assn. to apply pressure during contract negotiations. It filed a lawsuit, saying it has had to cancel about 300 flights nationally and internationally over the past week because of the union's actions. Another 36 were canceled Tuesday.

Federal District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas issued a temporary restraining order against the union Tuesday, ordering its member pilots not to engage in any boycotts or work slowdowns and warning that such action would violate federal law.

Spirit spokesman Paul Berry issued an apology to customers, saying the company is “shocked and saddened” by the Fort Lauderdale melee.

“We believe this is the result of intimidation tactics by a limited number of our pilots affecting the behavior of the larger group,” Berry said.

The union has denied the accusation, but it said in a statement that its members will obey the judge's order with the goal of helping Spirit resume normal operations.

Airline analyst Robert Mann said that it doesn't take a great number of pilots calling in sick or refusing to accept extra shifts for an airline to have to cancel numerous flights. Airlines often don’t have many reserve pilots on call, he said, and the reserves are not always in the right place to step in.

Sheriff's reports released Tuesday said deputies saw three people — 22-year-old Desmond Waul of Selden, N.Y., and 24-year-old Janice Waul and 22-year-old Davante Garrett, both of Brentwood, N.Y. — threatening the airline's front counter employees. Deputies said the trio’s actions caused the crowd to become increasingly aggressive to the point of near-violence and that they wouldn't leave when ordered. Deputies said that when they tried to arrest the three, the suspects threatened them and resisted being handcuffed.

The three suspects were being held Tuesday at the Broward jail in lieu of $10,000 bond each. It was unclear whether they had lawyers.

Jennifer Glann said at the airport Tuesday that she was in the crowd Monday night, trying to get home to New Haven, Conn. She said conditions were “awful” and “horrible.”

“There was nowhere to stand, nowhere to sit,” she said. Employees were forcing people to go outside, she said. Soon, scuffles started. “People were getting arrested left and right.”

Paul Yankowitz of Newark, N.J., said he tried to remain calm as the crowd became enraged. He didn't think the cancellations were worth getting angry about.

“Life is short and you can't get stressed,” he said.

The Fort Lauderdale airport was the scene of a mass shooting in January that killed five people and wounded six. It happened in another terminal on the opposite side of the airport from this week’s disruption.

Airport spokesman Greg Meyer said Tuesday that the airport staff has added security agents and other staff at the terminal to help Spirit. He said passengers are often anxious before flying, so any serious disruption can aggravate matters.

“For many people, airline travel is very challenging. A lot of people don't do it frequently, so they are nervous anyway,” Meyer said. “When your flight is canceled and you need to be somewhere at a certain time, it is an imposition, and we understand that. The airport tries to work with our airline partners to work with our passengers.”

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