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Allegiant Air flight aborts takeoff at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport

Passengers board a Allegiant Airlines flight to Lexington, Ky., at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport. [JAMES BORCHUCK, Times file]
Published Mar. 4, 2017

A runway at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport was closed for an hour Saturday morning after an Allegiant Air flight aborted takeoff because of a mechanical problem that left behind debris from the aircraft.

The pilot of Flight 890 bound for Fort Wayne, Ind., initially reported to the tower that he thought he had blown a tire during takeoff shortly after 8 a.m., according to a recording of tower communications reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. But rescue personnel called out to inspect the aircraft said the plane's tires were fine.

Allegiant Air confirmed the aborted takeoff and said the debris may have been related to an "internal failure" of one of the plane's engines.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Thousands of people flew Allegiant thinking their planes wouldn't fail in the air. They were wrong.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 "experienced a maintenance issue during pre-takeoff roll," Allegiant said in a statement emailed to the Times. "The pilot aborted the takeoff and the aircraft returned to the gate where passengers deplaned. ... Our maintenance team is inspecting the aircraft to determine the cause."

The flight was delayed about four hours before passengers were able to depart, apparently on a different aircraft. Passengers were given a meal voucher and provided a $100 voucher for future travel on the airline.

Yvette Aehle, a spokeswoman for the airport, said it was unclear what kind of debris was left on the runway. But she said an hour's runway closure does not necessarily indicate a lot of debris on a runway that is over a mile long.

"It takes a long time to inspect it," she said.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant, which is responsible for 95 percent of passenger traffic at the Pinellas County airport, has been moving aggressively to replace and retire its fleet of aging MD-80 series aircraft. While the airline says the MD-80s are absolutely safe with proper maintenance, it has acknowledged they are prone to more mechanical difficulties that cause schedule delays.

The airline is in the process of buying 12 new Airbus aircraft in a deal that could be worth close to $1 billion as it addresses the reliability of its fleet of about 85 aircraft. Allegiant had previously always bought used aircraft at bargain prices, a key part of the low-cost airline business model.

But the carrier has suffered a series of public relations bruises in the past two years related to emergency landings and questions about its maintenance practices.

A Times analysis published in November found that Allegiant's planes were four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines in 2015.

Allegiant did not dispute the findings, though the airline said it had made strong improvements to address the reliability of its fleet.

Among the steps it took was replacing its management at the St. Pete-Clearwater airport after the airline's CEO, Maurice Gallagher Jr., said the company suffered a "bad summer" of 2015 with emergency landings and operational issues there.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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