A maintenance error prompted Allegiant Air to ground most of its fleet on Friday, blindsiding several thousand passengers with scrambled schedules systemwide and the prospect of more turbulence Sunday and Monday.
Out of 121 scheduled flights, the airline canceled 18 and operated about 20 others with “significant delays.” At McCarran International Airport, that meant only nine of 24 departures ran on time, according to flightstats.com, with delays ranging from 49 minutes to Bellingham, Wash., to five hours and 43 minutes to Peoria, Ill.
Allegiant, a unit of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co., said all but two of the cancellations would be completed Saturday, when the schedule shrinks to 33 flights due to low demand. However, “Sunday and Monday will be operationally challenged” as the schedule ramps up again, said company spokesman Brian Davis, .
The only complete cancellation was a roundtrip between Oakland, Calif., and Reno.
Allegiant did not say how many passengers were affected, but average operating statistics indicate about 5,500.
During a routine investigation following the emergency evacuation of an Allegiant flight on Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration discovered the inflatable emergency slides that deploy from the sides of MD-80 jets were being overhauled only once every three years instead of annually, as required. Late Thursday evening, Allegiant then decided to remove from service all planes with noncompliant slides, leaving only 14 out of 49 available for service at the start of Friday. By Saturday, the number was projected to rise to 22 jets in service plus seven chartered from other carriers.
Besides these planes, Allegiant’s fleet includes two Airbus A319s and six Boeing 757s. Three other MD-80s are currently sidelined for regular overhauls.
Compensation to passengers with disrupted travel plans ranged from $100 vouchers for future Allegiant flights if the delay was for two to four hours, to a full refunds, $200 credits and free hotel rooms for flights pushed into Saturday.
But that provided no comfort to Bob Updegraff, who was heading home to Hutchinson, Kan., after attending the Interbike convention. His Friday flight to Wichita, Kan., was rescheduled for Saturday, when he was conducting the biggest promotional event of the year at the Harley’s Bicycles shop he owns.
To get home in time, he and two managers had to re-book on Southwest Airlines at the added cost of $600, even after taking the Allegiant refund into account. However, he said, three walk-up tickets on United would have cost $4,500 instead of the $1,068 on Southwest.
“We are not real happy right now,” Updegraff said. “They (Allegiant) told us they were not affiliated with any other airline so they could not re-book us. But they said we could write a letter and ask for the difference.”
Others said they had received little or no advance warning about the problems — although Allegiant said it attempted to contact affected passengers — and had to kill several hours at McCarran or return home.
Jack de Golia of Las Vegas said he received an email at 6:30 a.m. about the cancellation of his wife’s 8:15 a.m. flight to Missoula, Mont., but they had already left the house. He said he spent about 40 minutes on hold trying to talk to someone at Allegiant’s call center.
“My wife was at the airport and didn’t see anything at all on the departure board,” he said. “She is tentatively scheduled to get there (Saturday), but I’m not holding my breath.”
Rather than keep his small service dog confined in a carry-on bag, Rolly Uclaray of Las Vegas headed home when faced with a five-hour delay on his flight to Fresno, Calif.
“It would have been a lot better if they had given me some notice,” he said.
Shelly and Jay Matheson of Jamestown, Calif., said they would have spent more time on the Strip had they known their flight to Stockton, Calif., was running late. Asked their opinion of Allegiant, they replied in unison, “Not much.”
Friday’s flight delays are rooted in a problem on a Monday flight from Las Vegas to Peoria, Ill. A lavatory smoke detector went off while the MD-80 was on a taxiway. All 144 passengers and six crew members evacuated safely, but one of the four emergency slides did not properly deploy. The subsequent FAA inquiry revealed that slide manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace had changed its maintenance directive in 2007 to require an overhaul annually for slides more than 15 years old, but Allegiant continued the previous regimen of once every three years.
According to spokesman Davis, Allegiant then launched a hurry-up effort to find slides on planes that had been overhauled in the past year and switch them around if necessary to ensure each plane in the air had all four. The switch takes about a half-hour per slide. This process boosted the number of available MD-80s to 18 by mid-afternoon after starting Friday at 14.
But it takes about five days to ship a slide for overhaul at an authorized maintenance facility, in part because components are considered hazardous materials and must be trucked, said Davis. As a result, the process of getting all the MD-80s back in the air with overhauled slides will probably extend until the end of the month.
“It will get better, day-by-day,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said Allegiant had already begun contacting passengers scheduled to travel on Sunday in anticipation of disruptions.
Allegiant Travel Co. shares fell $5.08, or 4.93 percent, on Friday to close at $97.91 amid a broad market sell-off.
Review-Journal writer Annalise Porter contributed to this report. Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at 702-387-5290 or at email@example.com.