Late Allegiant flight leads to TSA complications

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 13, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - The aircraft was finally at the gate after a two-hour delay, and the last three Honolulu-bound Allegiant passengers thought they had arrived in plenty of time for the 9:10 p.m. departure. But the flight left without them, because TSA inspectors were no longer on duty for their security clearance.

It was Monday, Dec. 9. Kerry Emerson, whose son Matt Joseph was one of the stranded passengers, said she was flabbergasted when Allegiant employees at the ticket counter told all three passengers that they would have to wait until the next Allegiant flight on Friday, Dec. 13.

Emerson said one of the Allegiant employees handed her a slip of paper with a customer service number on it.

"I am not going to call customer service," Emerson says she replied. "YOU are going to call customer service."

As Emerson saw it, it was Allegiant's fault that her son and the other two passengers were stranded. She says all three of those passengers got text messages from the airline notifying them that the Honolulu flight was running about two hours late and would not depart until 9:10 p.m. Other passengers either missed that message or decided to wait it out at the airport, and they were able to be cleared for boarding by Transportation Security Administration officers who were still on the job.

When Matt Joseph and the other two passengers arrived, the four TSA officers had already shut down their metal detectors and other equipment, and they told Emerson that they could not go back into service and rack up overtime pay without advance authorization. Emerson said they also told her they might have been able to get that authorization earlier, but Allegiant personnel had not notified them there would be a lengthy delay.

One of the other three stranded passengers, Julianne King of Kailua, Hawaii, acknowledged that the text message Allegiant sent her had advised showing up at the airport two hours in advance of the 9:10 p.m. departure. She got there about an hour and 15 minutes early, figuring that would be plenty of time based on her experiences flying out of Bellingham.

King was stunned when a security guard at the terminal door told her she would not be allowed to board her flight home because TSA was off-duty.

"I have a son who is autistic and I have family and I was deeply concerned," King said.

At the Allegiant counter, King said she was frustrated when the two employees initially offered no more than a refund or a seat on a Friday fight, and refused to refer the matter to a supervisor.

As King tells it, one of the Allegiant staffers was unsympathetic, but at Emerson's insistence the other eventually did agree to talk to higher-ups, and after about an hour, the three stranded passengers were booked on an Alaska Airlines flight departing Tuesday, Dec. 10.

Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said the airline went the extra mile to help the passengers, even though in her view their predicament was not Allegiant's responsibility. She said Allegiant had, in fact, notified TSA of the delay.

Allegiant staffers are well aware of the need to communicate flight delays to TSA, because Allegiant typically serves smaller airports where there is no 24-hour-a-day TSA service. In some of those airports, Allegiant is the only commercial airline. In some cases, Wheeler said, TSA elects not to keep its employees late.

"It was really the TSA that caused them to miss their flight," Wheeler said, adding that airline records indicate that TSA received a timely notice of the delay.

TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said the opposite. She relayed this statement from the agency:

"TSA works closely with the airlines and airport to set checkpoint and baggage screening hours in accordance with planned flight schedules," the emailed statement said. "TSA has agreed-upon procedures that airlines must follow if the need arises for screening operations outside of these defined hours. In this case, TSA did not receive the proper notifications required to keep the checkpoint open beyond normal hours. However, TSA kept the checkpoint open for more than 30 additional minutes to accommodate the screening of passengers, but did not have staff available beyond that time to continue passenger screening."

Allegiant's Wheeler said the three passengers got more than they might have expected, and getting a next-day flight on a competing airline was an unusual concession for Allegiant.

"Generally speaking, we don't rebook passengers on other airlines," Wheeler said. "It's not part of our policy and we're not required to do it. ... We do try to accommodate our passengers as best we can."

Wheeler acknowledged that Allegiant encourages customers to communicate with the airline via websites and email, because that is the lowest-cost approach. That means getting a live person on a customer service line may take a lot of patience during busy times.

As Wheeler explained it, booking a low-cost Allegiant flight should not mean "sacrificing all customer-service expectations. ... It just means you're defining customer service differently. ... We do make every effort to fulfill the promises that we make to our customers."

Passenger King noted that her round trip from Honolulu cost less than $300.

"I guess you get what you pay for," King said. "I'm not sure if I'll fly them again. ... At the end of the day they did have an employee who did fix it."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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