CLEARWATER — Avantair is back in the air.
The company that sells fractional ownership in its fleet of private airplanes resumed flight operations Sunday after grounding its aircraft for nearly three weeks to fix a structural flaw in the planes' tails.
The company by Tuesday had also brought back about half of its 500 employees. Most of them were furloughed while the company grounded its fleet at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport so it could inspect and repair its 54 planes.
The rest of the employees should be back at work at their usual pay rates next week, Avantair CEO Steven Santo told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.
"We're bringing our fleet back up daily," Santo said. "By Thanksgiving, which is very busy for us, we'll have all our planes available."
Avantair flies the Piaggio P180, a turbo-prop plane that the company says is more cost effective than jets because it travels at nearly the same speeds while burning less fuel.
The company's troubles began when a Piaggio lost its left tail elevator during a July trip on the West Coast. By the end of October, in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration, the company decided to ground its entire fleet.
Santo said that the company fixed the problem with the tail elevators, making repairs to the entire fleet. But while the fleet was grounded, most of its employees, including its 200 pilots, were sent home without pay.
The company said it continued to pay its employees benefits, however. It also kept its customer service staff to deal with customers left without the air service they paid for.
"We did whatever the owners asked of us," Santo said. "We set up charters for them and found them commercial airline tickets. Pretty much anything to keep the owners happy, we did."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.