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Wasp causes Allegiant Air flight out of St.Pete-Clearwater to divert to Orlando

Allegiant Air flight takes off from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. June has been bumpy for Allegiant with two emergency landings at the Pinellas airport earlier in the month and a series of flight cancellations since.
Published Dec. 16, 2015

A Florida wasp provided the latest challenge to Allegiant Air in a difficult month for the airline, crawling into an aircraft sensor Thursday and forcing a flight departing St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to make an unscheduled landing.

Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said Flight 894 with 159 passengers took off at 7:30 a.m. headed to Niagara Falls, N.Y., but diverted to Orlando Sanford International Airport not long after takeoff because of problems with the sensor.

The incident comes during a bumpy June for Allegiant with two emergency landings at the Pinellas airport earlier in the month and a series of flight cancellations since.

Wheeler said Flight 894's problem was not severe enough by itself to cause a diversion and it did not endanger the plane.

"However, we don't have mechanics in Niagara Falls," Wheeler said in an interview. "And so the feeling was that if we were to take the aircraft to Niagara Falls and for some reason it needed to have maintenance done, that would create a pretty significant delay for our passengers while we got contract maintenance out to the airport."

That delay, she said, would have affected passengers in Niagara Falls scheduled for the flight's return leg to the county airport later in the day. So the aircraft was sent to Orlando, where mechanics were available.

Allegiant could not provide any detail about the sensor, including its function or where it is located on the aircraft. The airline said it later discovered that the wasp had started to build a nest that may have affected the sensor.

"It turns out … this happens from time to time in Florida," Wheeler said. "It was an easy fix."

Former U.S. Airways pilot John Cox, who lives in St. Petersburg, said from the airline's description it appears the wasp was in a pitot tube, which is as narrow as a pencil, on the nose of the aircraft. The plane, a McDonnell Douglas model, has three such tubes measuring airspeed.

Cox said the pilot of Flight 894 may have noticed one of three gauges showed a different airspeed than the other two during the flight, indicating a problem.

"It's not an uncommon occurrence," Cox said. The wasps "find a spot on the inside of the tube that they like and they will start building a nest and it impedes the airflow into the tube."

After landing at Orlando Sanford International at 8:24 a.m., passengers were put on another plane and took off about 90 minutes later. They arrived in Niagara Falls about 12:10 p.m., about two hours and 20 minutes later than originally scheduled.

The airline said passengers on the flight will receive $50 vouchers they can use on future flights because of the "inconvenience."

With Allegiant's safety under the microscope, the airline responded quickly to reassure passengers that the flight diversion was a relatively minor incident. The airline described the diversion as an "operational decision" rather than a mechanical issue.

"The safety of our passengers and crew is always our No. 1 priority," Allegiant officials said in a statement.

Airlines are frequently forced to divert flights for a variety of reasons. Weather appears to be one of the more common reasons for diversions, though everything from mechanical problems to unruly passengers and medical emergencies can cause pilots to seek out the nearest airport for an unscheduled landing.

Flight 894 was just north of Gainesville before it turned around and headed for Orlando. The aircraft's altitude never exceeded 18,000 feet, according to the website Flightaware.com. That appears to be far below the altitude the flight would normally reach at that point of the trip, according to Flightaware.com data.

Earlier this month, an Allegiant flight made an emergency landing after taking off from the Pinellas airport. Smoke appeared in the plane's cabin about eight minutes after takeoff, and passengers disembarked on emergency slides after landing.

On June 17, another Allegiant flight made an emergency landing at the airport because of a pressurization problem.

"Our overall safety record continues to be one of the best in the industry, and we continue to operate every flight with the safety of our passengers and crew the number one priority," Allegiant officials have previously said.

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

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