A Spirit pilot and flight attendant describe flying empty planes around the country and being stranded for days last week amid the airline's meltdown: 'It was like being lost in space'

·4 min read
An aerial view shows Spirit Airlines jets parked at McCarran International Airport
An aerial view shows Spirit Airlines jets parked at McCarran International Airport Ethan Miller/Getty Images
  • One pilot said Spirit's cancellations came down to the airline's inadequate infrastructure.

  • Flight attendants were left stranded away from base for multiple days, one Spirit worker said.

  • Some workers reportedly drove food to airports and let stranded employees stay in their homes.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Spirit Airlines canceled over 2,000 flights last week due to a poorly timed combination of bad weather, system outages, and staffing issues.

The epic meltdown caused some pilots to fly empty planes across the country while flight attendants were left stranded for days, according to two Spirit staffers.

"If you can't track and see in the IT system where your crew members are, then how are you going to schedule to move them anywhere?" one flight attendant, who was stranded in a major Northeastern city for four days, told Insider.

"It was like being lost in space," she said.

One pilot said Spirit's operational issues came down to the airline's lack of investment in infrastructure, which he said is evidenced by staffing shortages, antiquated phone lines, and crashing computer systems.

"They're trying to run an airline of 167 airplanes on an infrastructure that was designed for 50," he said.

Both employees requested anonymity to speak freely about the situation, though their identities and employment were verified by Insider.

According to the pilot, some Spirit crew members flew more than the flight time maximum outlined within their employment contracts. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that pilots must have at least 8 hours of rest within a 24-hour period. However, most airlines have stricter policies due to union negotiations.

He said that during Spirit's irregular operations, some pilots had the option to waive those contractual limitations in order to prevent additional flight cancellations and delays.

"Most pilots I've talked to have been waiving as much as they can in order to keep flight from canceling and airplanes moving," he told Insider.

A spokesperson for the pilots' union said they can't substantiate the claim that crew members had flown beyond their contractual time maximums since they don't have access to the airline's scheduling software.

Spirit did not respond to Insider's request for comment for this article.

When crew member's flights did become canceled, many staffers became stranded in airport hotels. This was in part due to a technical crash that impacted Spirit's crew scheduling system.

The flight attendant told Insider that approximately 30 Spirit employees including herself were stranded outside of base for multiple days. One employee drove over an hour to deliver the crew food while local flight attendants opened up their homes for workers to stay the night, she said.

The pilot told Insider that when he was assigned to fly a plane to Boston, two flight attendants were missing, causing the flight to be canceled. A few minutes later, he walked by six flight attendants eating dinner in an airport restaurant who told him they were stranded with nowhere to go. They had been contacting the company all day and received little guidance on what to do next.

Then, the pilot flew the empty plane to Boston.

"From my standpoint as a human being, I walked through that gate area and I saw people there with their kids, they're leaving their beach vacation - they have sunburns and their little kids and their luggage and their strollers and their snacks," the pilot said.

"It's 10 o'clock at night and we're canceling a flight because we're missing two flight attendants. Not because the engine fell off the airplane, not because somebody got sick, but because Spirit mismanaged their staff for that flight."

Last week, Spirit CEO Ted Christie apologized for the cancellations on CNBC and said that he promises to fix the airline's staffing and scheduling issues. On Wednesday, only 1% of Spirit's flights were canceled, down from last week's high of 60%.

"There's definitely some angry people," Christie told CNBC last Thursday. "Right now, all I can say is we're very sorry for what happened."

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