Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Business

Clearwater's Avantair voluntarily grounds its fleet of planes for safety reasons

CLEARWATER — Avantair, a company that offers customers the chance to own shares of private planes at a fraction of the cost of buying their own jet, grounded its entire fleet after one of its aircraft lost its left tail elevator flying on the other side of the country in July.

The decision to halt all flight operations also led the company to furlough a significant number of its 500 employees while experts perform a "nose to tail" safety inspection of each plane and review maintenance records.

Avantair, which operates its "fractional ownership" business model out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, said it voluntarily stood down its fleet of nearly 60 Piaggio Avanti planes in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The July incident sparked an investigation that led Avantair to stand down select aircraft on Saturday for inspection. Then, on Wednesday, management decided to ground the entire fleet. The company did not say if a specific issue with that model of plane led to that decision.

"For the past week, we have been undertaking extensive inspections of our fleet and our operating procedures," said Avantair's CEO, Steven Santo, in a prepared statement.

The company said it expects to resume flights in the coming week and will bring back employees when it starts flying again. But the company did not say how many workers have been or will be furloughed in the mean time.

Its fractional ownership business model allows customers to buy shares of the company's private planes so they can fly where they want when they want to. The company has 3,000 to 4,000 flights a month, and a 2010 Tampa Bay Times article put the price of a 2 1/2 hour flight to New York at about $6,500.

But the company's stock price has taken a beating since it was $1.35 in November. On Friday it opened at 18 cents, fell to 10 cents, then closed at 20 cents.

The incident that led Avantair to shut down its entire operation took place on July 28. According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, a Piaggio P180 took off from Camarillo Airport in California, picked up two passengers in San Diego, then landed at Henderson Executive Airport in Nevada.

After landing in Nevada, the report said, crew members inspected the plane and discovered the left elevator missing from the tail. The elevator helps control the plane's pitch, allowing the pilots to aim the nose.

Two crew members and two passengers aboard the plane were not injured. The crew noticed nothing unusual during the San Diego leg of the flight, the NTSB said, but the captain reported needing to use more back pressure on the flight controls to land normally in Nevada.

The NTSB report said that the Piaggio P180 had been flying without the left tail elevator at least since it took off that day from Camarillo. Airport personnel there found the elevator near a runway on July 31. The plane was repaired and back in the air days later.

Avantair said it hired safety expert Nick Sabatini, a former FAA official, to oversee the review. Most of the fleet has been recalled to Clearwater for inspection, a company spokesman said. Other planes are being inspected around the nation.

Avantair said it's the only fractional operator that uses Piaggio's rear-facing, turbo-propped planes, which can approach the speeds of conventional business jets while burning less fuel.

The company said it is in touch with its customers about the situation but did not say if it was purchasing commercial flights or chartering private jets to accommodate them.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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