Some Spirit Airlines pilots are worried and looking for other opportunities after a U.S. judge last month blocked the low-cost carrier's proposed merger with competitor JetBlue Airways, putting its future in doubt.

Spiritual pilots, recruiters and industry sources told Reuters the decision had led to a surge in job applications at other workplaces. Spirit Chief Financial Officer Scott Haralson said last week that the company was looking at “right-sizing” its labor costs, adding to the discomfort.

A Spirit spokesperson said attrition levels are not unusual and that pilot layoffs this year were below forecasts for 2024.

“We remain confident about Spirit’s future and are committed to the well-being of our team members,” the spokesperson said.

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A Spirit Airlines plane taxis near American Airlines aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport on June 1, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty Images)

The ultra-low-cost carrier has struggled to return to sustainable profitability due to weaker demand in key markets and the grounding of dozens of its aircraft due to a problem with RTX's Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan engines.

Clock Security Last To change To change %
TO SAVE SPIRIT AIRLINES INC. 6.72 +0.07 +1.05%
BLUE JETBLUE AIRWAYS CORP. 6.07 +0.13 +2.19%

Analysts are unsure about Spirit's ability to survive if the $3.8 billion merger deal remains blocked. Some analysts suggested the company could face bankruptcy if it fails to shore up its finances, and S&P Global, Moody's and Fitch lowered the airline's credit ratings following the decision, citing greater default and refinancing risks.

Stress and worry set in

“It’s very stressful,” said a Spirit pilot with more than five years of experience who applied for jobs with Delta Air Lines, United and American Airlines. Another Spirit pilot said he spoke to several colleagues who are looking for other opportunities. The pilots spoke on condition of anonymity.

Spirit's pilots' union declined to comment.

Job applications for Spirit pilots at United have increased since the court ruling, two industry sources told Reuters. United, which plans to hire 2,000 pilots in 2024, down from 2,350 in 2023, said in a statement that it has “a strong pool of candidates.”

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The job market for pilots has cooled after a two-year boom. Hiring has declined for five consecutive months, data from Future & Active Pilot Advisors shows, as major airlines have mostly managed to meet staffing needs. Hiring in January fell 18% compared to the previous year.

Jetblue entered the bidding war in April

A JetBlue plane lands after a taxiing Spirit Airlines jet at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport on Monday, April 25, 2022. (Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Flying on United, Delta or American Airlines is seen as a refresher for pilots on regional, budget airlines like Spirit, but the surge in interest reflects growing concern about Spirit's future.

“With a seniority-based system, you typically don’t change companies and only in times of failure or real hardship would you consider it,” said Kit Darby, a US aviation consultant who specializes in pilot career development.

Darby said he recently spoke with half a dozen Spirit pilots looking for new jobs or career advice.

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Los Angeles California International Airport

A Spirit Airlines plane taxis into Los Angeles International Airport on June 1, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty Images)

An exodus of pilots could harm Spirit's operations but also reduce costs. The airline had around 3,500 pilots at the end of 2023.

Spirit last week dismissed speculation about its future as a “misguided narrative,” saying it has increased liquidity to survive even if the merger is not completed.

The Florida-based airline has cut its capacity growth plans. Spirit late last year slowed pilot hiring and promotions to the captain's chair. It also suspended training for new pilots and flight attendants and offered voluntary time off to cabin crew.

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Spirit said last week it was working on solutions to its labor costs as it has “too much staff” at all levels. A spokesperson declined to provide further details.

These comments left the pilots with more questions. One said he was unsure how Spirit would address overstaffing, saying he hoped enough pilots would leave voluntarily to avoid potential furloughs.

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