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Brouhaha Breaks Out At Spirit Airlines' Ticket Counter. Here's The Back Story

Updated at 3:40 p.m. ET

Canceled flights, kerfuffles at the ticket counter, clashes with local law enforcement — it's fair to say that neither customers nor Spirit Airlines staff members intended their night to unfold this way at Florida's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Yet that's precisely the scene that hit social media Monday, as cellphone footage depicting the fallout found eyeballs around the world. Naturally, widespread media coverage followed soon afterward.

Before long, images of customers irate over the cancellation of nine flights (according to CBS News) had spattered across Twitter and Instagram.

So how did we get here?

It's just the latest incident in a series of black eyes for the airline industry — including somanyrecordedconfrontations that even Congress got involvedlast week. But the skirmishes that broke out between passengers, employees and Broward County deputies Monday night called attention to a different set of circumstances: a deepening dispute between the airline and many of its pilots.

"We are shocked and saddened to see the videos of what took place at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport this evening," Spirit Airlines spokesman Paul Berry said in a statement emailed to NPR.

Berry continued:

"This is a result of unlawful labor activity by some Spirit pilots designed to disrupt Spirit operations for our customers, by canceling multiple flights across our network. These pilots have put their quest for a new contract ahead of getting customers to their destinations and the safety of their fellow Spirit Team Members. It is for this reason, Spirit has filed suit in Federal Court to protect our customers' future travel."

Spirit filed that lawsuit earlier Monday in U.S. district court against the Air Line Pilots Association, International, alleging in its complaint that the labor union was "engaged in a pervasive illegal work slowdown that has caused approximately 300 flight cancellations and has disrupted the travel plans of over 20,000 customers, while causing Spirit to incur approximately $8.5 million in lost revenue and irreparable harm to its goodwill with its customers."

The airline says that by allegedly making concerted efforts to refuse last-minute shifts and "junior assignments," members of the union are violating the Railway Labor Act, which set up a series of procedures designed to prevent work stoppages from disrupting the U.S. transportation system.

ALPA objects to this characterization of the dispute, telling NPR in a statement that the union and its unit of Spirit pilots "are not engaged in a job action":

"Rather, ALPA and the Spirit pilots are continuing to do everything possible to help restore the company's operations, which have experienced significant problems over the past several days. While we will continue these efforts, we will actively defend the association, its officers and its member pilots against the unwarranted and counterproductive legal action brought by Spirit Airlines."

And, as CNN points out, union leaders appeared to anticipate that legal action, telling members in a public letter Friday that they "are not sending any 'coded' or hidden messages" that pilots should refuse shifts.

"Simply put," the letter reads, "pilots who want to pick up open time should do so and not be questioned because, under the present circumstances, performing such flying is in all of our interest and supports our long-term objective of substantially improving pay and working conditions for the members."

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order in the case Tuesday, preventing the union from any "concerted refusal to perform normal pilot operations consistent with the status quo" until further hearing. ALPA promised to comply with the order, "which is completely in line with our overriding goal: the resumption of normal operations."

In the meantime, observers on Twitter appear disinclined to comment on the legal matters afoot — but they've shown no stinginessin heaping scorn on both the raucous customers and the airline, which already had drawn no lack of heated criticism (and some defenders) over the years.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.