BELLINGHAM - Several local flights were canceled or delayed Friday, Sept. 20, after Allegiant Air announced the grounding of as many as 30 of its fleet of 52 MD-80 jets to correct what the company called a "compliance issue" involving emergency slides on the planes.
In a brief statement, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the issue was discovered during the federal investigation of a Monday, Sept. 16, incident at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Passenger used the slides to evacuate after a smoke detector indicated smoke in the rear of the plane.
"The FAA this week became aware that Allegiant ... may not have inspected some emergency evacuation slides on its MD-80 fleet at required intervals," the FAA said. "The agency directed Allegiant to immediately report the inspection status of all slides installed on its MD-80 fleet."
At mid-afternoon Friday, Allegiant spokesman Brian Davis said the company was scrambling to get its own jets back in service, and was contracting to use seven additional planes from other airlines. As a result of those moves, Davis said he expected the system to be caught up by the end of the day Saturday, Sept. 21, with all passengers with Friday or Saturday tickets reaching their destinations - partly because Allegiant has a very light regular schedule of flights on Saturday.
Davis acknowledged that there will be more delays or cancellations of flights on Sunday and Monday, when there is a heavier schedule of flights.
In Bellingham, Allegiant has three departing flights on Saturdays, compared to seven on Sundays and Mondays.
Allegiant is the major provider of commercial air service to Bellingham International Airport, with service to Las Vegas; Oakland, Calif.; Reno; Los Angeles; Palm Springs; Mesa, Ariz., and Hawaii.
According to the airline website, disruptions in and out of Bellingham were numerous Friday:
a 7 a.m. flight to Palm Springs was canceled.
a 2:30 p.m. flight to Oakland was canceled.
an 8 a.m. flight to Las Vegas was pushed back to 2:30 p.m.
a 5:20 p.m. flight from Oakland to Bellingham was canceled.
a 10:25 a.m. flight from Palm Springs to Bellingham was canceled.
Port of Bellingham Aviation Director Dan Zenk said he has been told to expect Allegiant's Saturday flights to operate more or less as scheduled. The schedule includes two flights to Las Vegas and one to Honolulu. Allegiant flies Boeing 757s, not MD-80s, to Honolulu.
For Sunday and Monday flights, Zenk advised passengers to stay in touch with the airline via this airline website, or the customer service line--702-505-8888. He also asked passengers not to call the airport administration office for flight information.
The airline reports it plans to compensate passengers with up to a $200 credit toward another Allegiant flight, in addition to a refund, based on the length of their delay.
Davis said the airline discovered this week that it hadn't been following guidelines updated by the manufacturer in 2007, recommending the overhaul of the slides every year if they are more than 15 years old. Allegiant had been doing the work every three years.
As of mid-afternoon Friday, Davis said 18 MD-80s were in service, equipped with slides that had already been inspected in the past year.
Davis said the inspections are extensive, requiring removal of the slides from the plane for checking and testing of key components. The job is done by a contractor and usually takes five days.
Davis emphasized that the planes were being idled to get inspections up to date, not because any slides have been found to be faulty at this point.
He also rejected any suggestion that the episode is evidence of wider safety issues at Allegiant.
"Obviously we'll be working with the FAA as we do every day, to constantly review and improve in any way we can," Davis said. "We have a good track record with the FAA. ... At the first sight of a discrepancy yesterday, we pulled our fleet out of service ... We hold ourselves to the highest standard."
The MD-80s that make up 85 percent of Allegiant's fleet have an average age of about 23 years, according to company regulatory filings, Bloomberg News reported. Each plane can carry 166 passengers, and Davis said they typically operate at 90 percent capacity.
Davis said call center staffing would be increased, and representatives promised to contact affected travelers directly, although numerous commenters on the company Facebook page complained they had received no such contact.
Davis said representatives have called the numbers on file for the passengers, and in some cases the passengers may be away from home and unable to get those calls.
"We apologize for the disruption to our passengers and ask that they please remain patient as we work to correct the issue, reschedule affected flights and accommodate any passengers impacted," said Andrew Levy, Allegiant Travel Co. president.
The company is slowly adding newer planes to its fleet and reducing its reliance on the older, noisier MD-80s, but a company spokeswoman recently described the MD-80 as "the workhorse of our fleet."
Las Vegas-based Allegiant began flights to Bellingham in 2004 and has steadily expanded its flight offerings here, largely by attracting Canadian travelers seeking a cheaper alternative to the Vancouver airport. The growth in commercial flights has helped to pay for millions of dollars in improvements at Bellingham International Airport, via revenue from fees collected from each departing passenger.
Port officials are relying on continued robust passenger fee revenue to pay off bonds that have financed airport expansion projects.