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Allegiant Air flight from St. Pete-Clearwater makes emergency landing

An Allegiant Air plane sits at the gate at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in June. An Allegiant Air flight leaving St. Pete-Clearwater International made an emergency landing Monday in Greensboro, N.C., on its way to Richmond, Va.
An Allegiant Air plane sits at the gate at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in June. An Allegiant Air flight leaving St. Pete-Clearwater International made an emergency landing Monday in Greensboro, N.C., on its way to Richmond, Va.
Published Aug. 4, 2015

An Allegiant Air flight leaving St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport made an emergency landing Monday in Greensboro, N.C., on its way to Richmond, Va.

An engine issue caused the flight with 146 passengers aboard to divert to the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, officials with Allegiant Air confirmed. Passengers aboard the flight said they smelled smoke and heard a popping noise before crew members told them they were making an emergency landing.

"There was a loud noise and smoke in the cabin. I was told that the plane suffered catastrophic engine failure of its left engine at 33,000 feet," said Ed McNelis, who was visiting Clearwater with his fiancee for her 30th high school reunion. "Everyone kind of knew something was wrong."

A maintenance team is investigating the cause of the engine issue, Allegiant officials said.

The flight landed in Greensboro at 10:58 a.m. Passengers were expecting to board another aircraft and continue to Richmond on Monday afternoon. Allegiant Air bought pizza for the grounded passengers while they waited in the Greensboro airport terminal. All passengers will be refunded a portion of their ticket costs and given $100 vouchers for future travel.

McNelis said that Allegiant Air flight attendants and pilots kept passengers calm.

"I give credit to the crew, who were very subtle about the problem," he said. "It was a calm scene, but there was a sense of tension."

He learned about the engine trouble once he was on the ground in Greensboro.

"They told us at the gate that there had been catastrophic damage to the left engine, which is what we heard pop," McNelis said. "I've been flying all my life and never experienced anything like this. I guess you get what you pay for."

This is the latest in a string of incidents for the budget airline since June, which include three emergency landings at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. An Allegiant flight headed to Fresno, Calif., made an emergency landing at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on Saturday after reports of a left engine fire, according to Las Vegas media reports.

Last week, an Allegiant flight made an emergency landing at a closed airport in Fargo, N.D., because it was running low on fuel.

"The first thing I'd question is the maintenance. If this company is making money, there's no reason to skimp on the cost of maintenance," said David G. McAdams with Midwest Aviation Consulting in Kentucky. "If it were me, I'd be concerned."

Allegiant is known for operating aging aircraft. In April, the company purchased three Airbus 320 planes from Hamburg, a German charter airline that went out of business last year.

Most traditional airline carriers are reporting modest gains so far in 2015, but Allegiant Air is seeing record-high growth. Allegiant reported a 62 percent increase in net income, totaling $54.3 million, during the latest quarter compared with the same period in 2014. So far this year, Allegiant has recorded a 76 percent spike over the same period a year ago. Its stock price was up Monday at $219.87.

"The only way these low-level carriers can make money is if they reduce costs in other areas," said Ken Qualls, CEO of Flight Management Solutions in Boca Raton. "We do know that the engines are older in these airplanes and it's a good assumption that they don't have the best mechanics. The bottom line, it comes down to financials, not safety, with Allegiant."

Allegiant is a boon for Pinellas County, too. St. Pete-Clearwater is one of Allegiant's busiest hubs, with nearly all of the passenger traffic there supported by the airline. Pinellas tourism officials have credited the Las Vegas-based airline, which flies to a number of underserved mid-sized cities, with boosting local tourism.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.