ST. PETERSBURG — Allegiant Air's summer struggles continued Thursday with several flights grounded at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, hours after the second emergency landing there this month.
The six canceled flights — representing arrivals and departures — came amid a heap of negative attention on the low-cost airline, which has clashed with its pilots and was recently the subject of a damning report from an airplane mechanic's coalition. Allegiant cited "operational needs" as reason for holding back the planes, but did not elaborate.
"Allegiant is currently operating in our peak travel season, flying a very heavy schedule of flights each day," the company said in a statement. "In addition to this high demand, we had a number of unforeseen and unusual events that have taken aircraft out of service."
The cancellations drew a harsh rebuke from union officials representing Allegiant's pilots. They cited a report from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Aviation Mechanics Coalition, which found more than three dozen mechanical problems reported nationwide between September and March, nine involving St. Pete-Clearwater International.
Allegiant's fleet includes about 70 planes with an average age of 22 years, according to the report, making it among the oldest in the country.
"Passengers shouldn't have to wonder if their Allegiant flight will be the next one to make an emergency landing," said Daniel C. Wells, president of APA Teamsters Local 1224, in a statement. "But with Allegiant's nickel-and-dime approach to its operation, employees and safety, it puts passengers and flight crews at an unnecessary increased risk."
A total of 283 flight segments were scheduled for Allegiant on Thursday, according to the company, and all cancellations involved St. Pete-Clearwater International, where Allegiant represents about 95 percent of traffic. The airline is the keystone of the airport's growth, but St. Pete Clearwater International director Tom Jewsbury expressed little concern Thursday that the recent problems would have a long-term effect.
"Unfortunately, those type of incidents, they can occur and they do occur," Jewsbury said.
Asked if he was worried about the safety of Allegiant planes, Jewsbury simply said, "No."
The emergency landing Wednesday occurred when pilots turned around a Pittsburgh-bound plane near Ocala because of a pressurization problem, according to Allegiant. Earlier this month, passengers and crew spotted smoke in the cabin of another plane, prompting people aboard that plane to use an emergency slide to disembark.
Passengers of the canceled flights Thursday were as concerned about customer service as safety.
Jean White, 54, of Knoxville, Tenn., was wrapping up a vacation with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren Thursday morning. The trip was the first time flying for the youngest in their group, ages 3 and 5
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"They said, 'I never want to fly this airplane again,' " White said. "Yeah, me either."
Christian Wiltse was set to return to Tulsa, Okla., with his girlfriend of two years after their first ever vacation together Thursday.
"The vacation was good, it's just the getting-back part," Wiltse, 19, said before trailing off.
Tulsa is one of Allegiant's newer destinations, which St. Pete-Clearwater International touted in its May passenger report. About 135,000 people flew domestically to or from the airport last month, up 27 percent from the year before, according to the report. Ninety-four percent of customers flew Allegiant.
The earliest flight home Wiltse said he could secure was a Saturday departure to Springfield, Mo., nearly 200 miles from the Tulsa airport. He said his parents would pick them up, but he and his girlfriend were scurrying to book a cheap hotel room for their extra days in Florida.
"We're probably just going to stay in the hotel since we don't have a lot of extra money to do extra stuff," he said.
The other flights affected were going to or coming from Knoxville and New Windsor, N.Y.
Allegiant said it would give $200 travel vouchers to passengers on canceled flights. In addition to the voucher, Allegiant said, the airline would waive change fees and fare differences for anyone who needed to reschedule. If passengers opted not to rebook, the company said it would provide refunds. Anyone stuck without a return flight Thursday could additionally file a reimbursement review for extra travel expenses.
But several people were fuming as they had trouble getting through to Allegiant's customer service.
"We apologize to the passengers for any difficulty they had reaching customer service," the airline said in a statement late Thursday. "We have been experiencing an unusually high volume of calls today due to today's operational issues."
Jewsbury said Allegiant, which is based in Las Vegas, notified him of the long customer service waits early Thursday and sent extra staff to the airport to help.
Kathey Schroeder, 55, of New Trenton, Ind., said she called the help-line number provided by a gate agent about 7 a.m. but was still on the phone an hour later.
She said she came to Florida to clear her head a couple of weeks after her mother died, but getting home proved to be more stress.
If asked for flight advice in the future, Schroeder said, she will tell her friends: "Heck no. Never Allegiant."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.