7 hours at Spirit's biggest hub on 7th day of meltdown: The good, the bad and the ugly

The line for Spirit Airlines’ rebooking help at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida was packed on Saturday, Aug. 7. Passengers with canceled flights or missed connections are sent there.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  — When the Uber driver picked up Judie Campbell and her family for a ride to the airport early Saturday, he asked what airline they were flying.

"We're going to Spirit,'' Campbell told him. "He said, 'Oh, myyyyyy.''' 

The Pennsylvania family had issues with Spirit on their flight from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale International Airport a week ago – it was delayed for hours, so they canceled and bought pricier Southwest tickets so they didn't miss a cruise – but hadn't thought much about the budget airline since. 

They were blissfully unplugged on a six-night Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. The first they learned the budget airline's problems hadn't gone away while they were gone and, in fact, had gotten significantly worse, was when her son-in-law got online as the cruise ended early Saturday and caught up on the news.

The tally is staggering by any measure: 2,000+ flight cancellations. Tens of thousands of stranded travelers, some with multiple canceled flights. Seven days and counting.

But few things sum up the depth of Spirit's August meltdown as this: It's lasted longer than a cruise.

Spirit CEO Ted Christie has said weather, technology issues and crew shortages have combined to derail the airline's operations. He said the airline could have shortened the duration by mass canceling flights at the outset, but the carrier didn't want to leave passengers with too few options in a summer of sizzling travel demand.

I flew Spirit to Fort Lauderdale, home to the airline's headquarters and busiest operation, to chronicle and assess the crisis a week in amid Christie's promise on Thursday that things would get progressively better.

Story continues below the video. 

The good news: cancellations on Saturday were the lowest in a week, and Christie, making his first appearance of the crisis at the airport to talk to employees and customers, declared in an impromptu interview: "It does appear that we’re on our way out of it." Spirit had canceled 188 or 25% of its flights Saturday as of 9:30 p.m. ET, which is the fewest since Sunday. 

My circuitous (by design) trip to Florida – I took four one-way flights, from Phoenix to Las Vegas via Orange County, California, and Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale via Dallas – was pretty much flawless.

The bad: last-minute cancellations remain a big problem, lines for help are still agonizingly long, phone wait times high, and as hard as employees try to find seats on Spirit and other airlines, some passengers are still getting stranded.

Asked if Spirit has ever had to put so many of its passengers on rival carriers, Christie said, "No! No. No. No. No.''

Here's a snapshot from hours in airline purgatory, aka Spirit's Rebooking Assistance "center'' across from a row of baggage carousels on the ground level of Terminal 4, where the only food options are spit out of a vending machine, the only sounds yawns, sighs, exasperation via iPhone and a musical signal that bags are being delivered.

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'My flight was canceled. What have you got?'

Lynn Slyman left her house in the Florida Keys at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to catch a Spirit Airlines flight to New Jersey to celebrate her 52nd birthday withfamily. 

Her 6:50 a.m. nonstop flight to Atlantic City was showing a delay when she checked the flight status Friday night, but her husband texted her after midnight to say it was on time again. At 3 a.m. Spirit sent her a text to pick a "preferred'' seat. 

Slyman arrived at the airport around 5 a.m. Spirit's departure boards in the ticketing area showed the flight was on time, and she breezed through security. The departure screens by the time she got to the gate area told a different story: the flight was canceled. 

She tried to call Spirit's reservations center, but nobody answered. Slyman was directed to the rebooking assistance line downstairs at the airport. There were already 20 passengers in line when she got there before 5:50 a.m. Spirit passengers who had no rebooking luck Friday were sleeping on chairs and the floor.

"I don't usually complain, but this is ridiculous,'' she said. "If they know they're canceling all these flights, why don't they do it early enough so they don't piss people off? It makes no sense whatsoever."

(She later found a cancellation email that was sent at 4:22 a.m.,which was when she was on her way to the airport.)

Slyman approached the counter just before 7 a.m..

"My flight was canceled. What have you got?'' she asked.

She was in luck: a cheerful agent named Bryan was able to book her on a Spirit flight to Newark, New Jersey, around 9 a.m., and family would pick her up. 

"It won’t be canceled will it?'' she asked.

"I pray to God, no,'' he said with a laugh.

It wasn't.

"I fly Spirit all the time,'' Slyman said. "It's a crappy airline, but you can't beat the prices.''

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'We've been heads down at the office trying to fix the problem': Spirit CEO begins apology tour 

Spirit Airlines CEO Ted Christie and other Spirit officials chat with a customer in the ticketing area of Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Saturday, Aug. 7. It was Christie's first appearance at the airport since the airline's meltdown began a week ago.

Spirit's CEO had a conference call with reporters on Thursday but had been keeping a low profile as the airline grappled with a problem that spiraled beyond even the recovery from a blizzard or hurricane.

"We've been heads down at the office trying to fix the problem,'' he said in an interview at the airport Saturday.

Just after 7 a.m., Christie and Spirit's chief operating officer were spotted talking with fellow executives in the ticketing area. (I traveled to Fort Lauderdale anonymously for an unvarnished look at the operation and requested an interview when I ran into him.)

Spirit's employees were his first priority on his first visit to the airport since the crisis began. Christie met with customer service and gate agents, ramp workers, maintenance employees and chatted with pilots and flight attendants he ran into. 

The first order of business: apologizing for the chaos the airline has put them through.

"In order to best take care of your guests, you gotta take care of your team,'' he said. "There's a lot of things that we're trying to do to make sure that the team is supported."

A floor below, employees were adding retractable belt stanchions emblazoned with Spirit's logo to better manage the growing line of passengers, approaching 50, waiting for rebooking help.

Christie said the vast majority of Spirit's rebookings at this point in the crisis are done in advance. He attributed the long lines to the time it takes to find seats and rebook passengers, especially on other airlines.

"They've got to physically go in and buy tickets. That's literally what we're doing, is going on their (other airlines') website and buying their tickets,'' he said.

Spirit customer service employees try to help passengers find new flights at Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Saturday, Aug. 7. The airline has canceled more than 2,000 flights in the past week.

14 hours and a night in the airport later, off to Atlanta

At 10 a.m., Starla Peoples finally boarded a flight to Atlanta. But it wasn't on Spirit.

The Alabama woman and her husband, returning from a vacation in the Dominican Republic, were stranded at the airport Friday night after their connecting flight to Atlanta was canceled last minute. 

"When I went to put my bag on the scale, they said, 'Your flight's been canceled.''

They spent an hour and 45 minutes in line. The airline offered them a Saturday flight on Spirit, but they didn't want to take a chance. It was their first time on the airline, and they were not aware of this week's flight woes until other passengers told them in Fort Lauderdale.

"We talked to multiple people that rebooked with Spirit, and they are still waiting for a flight that doesn't cancel,'' Peoples said late Friday.

The couple asked for a refund and started shopping for flights on other airlines. They considered renting a car to get home but couldn't find one and had difficulty finding a hotel. By that time it was 3 a.m., so they slept in the airport.

Saturday morning, a fare they found palatable popped up on American, so they paid $350 for two last-minute tickets to Atlanta via Charlotte, N.C. The Spirit refund won't cover it, but Peoples said she plans to appeal to the airline though said, "It probably won't get me anywhere.''

They arrived home at 4 p.m. 

The show must (not) go on

Saxaphonist Nicolena Ferrentino, conga player Eddy Germaine and other members of the Haitian band Zenglen spent a chunk of their Saturday morning trying to get a new flight to Indianapolis in time for their first show there late Saturday night.

They arrived at the Fort Lauderdaleairport at 7 a.m. for a 9 a.m. flight that included a connection in Tampa, Florida, and quickly found out it was canceled. (Their promoter had booked it, so they didn't see any cancellation emails.) 

So they joined the line.

The Haitian band Zenglen spent Saturday morning, Aug. 7, trying to get a new flight to Indianapolis in time for their first show there late Saturday night.

They emerged without new tickets. The only option Spirit could find was a 6 a.m. flight on Sunday. (They like Spirit because the cheap ticket prices help offset the high cost of traveling with instruments.)

"We had to wait in line for like 2½ hours to find that we can’t go anywhere,'' she said.

The group's promoter ended up buying tickets on Southwest so some members could still go, but Ferrentino stayed in Florida because she has another job, too. The band's trombone players was among those catching the late Saturday flight.

"I cannot take the chances for not returning on time,'' she said.

Spirit comes through for cruisers

Judie Campbell and her family didn't love their chances of getting back to Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The first thing Campbell's daughter did when they were dropped off at the airport was to scan the departure boards in baggage claim. She noticed too much red: the color that denotes a canceled flight. 

The worry was for naught.

Spirit flight 1350 took off 30 minutes late at 4:04 p.m.