Vickie Peterson and her boyfriend had just started sipping their cocktails on an Allegiant Air MD-80 bound for Sonoma County last month when the pilot came over the intercom to deliver some bad news.
The plane, which had departed Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, was going to have to make an emergency landing in Las Vegas, the pilot said, because the air conditioning system was not working correctly, resulting in the aircraft burning more fuel.
Peterson said after the plane landed, passengers were forced to wait in the aircraft on the tarmac for 90 minutes as temperatures outside soared above the century mark.
“Some of the toddlers were running up and down the aisle,” she said. “Our son was crying because he was sweaty. It was gross.”
Allegiant Air’s safety record and customer service are again coming under scrutiny after a published report this week detailed problems related to its fleet of aging planes. The low-cost airline began service in May from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa.
According to the Washington Post, Allegiant has had a relatively large number of aborted takeoffs, emergency descents and emergency landings in 2015 through March of this year. The findings were based on Federal Aviation Administration documents obtained by a financial adviser and the paper’s own analysis of government and airline records.
Allegiant and the FAA said the report was based on outdated information. A recent FAA review turned up only “minor” and “non-systemic regulatory issues,” the airline said.
Some of the problems described in the report are familiar to those who’ve flown the airline out of Sonoma County.
Monica Smith of Healdsburg said three separate return flights she and family members had booked on Allegiant from Phoenix-Mesa in July were canceled and rescheduled for the following day, causing her to miss a day of work on one occasion.
She said the family has $800 worth of vouchers from Allegiant they don’t plan to use “because they obviously can’t be relied on to get a flight out.”
Larkfield’s Trish Ivey and her family can relate.
Ivey, her 17-year-old daughter, Katelyn Duffy, and one of Duffy’s friends had booked a July 28 flight on Allegiant to Phoenix-Mesa for a weekend tour of college campuses.
But three hours before departure, the group was notified the flight had been rescheduled for the following day due to mechanical problems with the plane at Phoenix-Mesa.
The group decided instead to make the 12-hour drive to Arizona, said Logan Johnson, Ivey’s husband.
“They made the best of it,” Johnson said.
Numerous Press Democrat readers who responded to an online request seeking feedback on their experiences flying Allegiant relayed similar problems and frustrations, including canceled flights, mechanical problems with planes and poor customer service.
On Thursday, an Allegiant Air MD-80 scheduled to arrive at the Sonoma County airport from Las Vegas at 8:40 a.m. had to divert to Stockton because of fog. The plane landed 90 minutes later in Sonoma County, delaying passengers who were booked on a 9:20 flight to Phoenix-Mesa.
Jon Stout, the airport’s manager, blamed the delays on weather. He said the airport does not track Allegiant’s on-time performance, or problems that arise due to mechanical or other issues. The airline is not required under federal law to provide the airport with that information, he said.
But Stout said he is “concerned” about the airline’s performance, based on feedback from passengers who’ve been affected by canceled or delayed flights.
“Allegiant does need to do more work on their customer service,” he said. “People were saying they were on hold for several hours trying to talk to a customer service agent. That does not help our reputation, and it’s not good for the community.”
The debut in May of Allegiant service signaled an important milestone for the Sonoma County airport, which is undergoing an expansion and is seeking more connections to farther-flung destinations.
The low-cost carrier is the second commercial airline operating in Sonoma County. Alaska Airlines started providing nonstop flights from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland in 2007, filling a hole left by the 2001 departure of United Express. It added flights to Las Vegas in 2008, but ended the route in 2012 and replaced it with flights to San Diego. Alaska also operates daily service to John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Allegiant began the service in Sonoma County using two MD-80s, but last week changed and now uses a single aircraft for the Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa routes, Stout said. He said the airline notified the airport it will phase in an Airbus 319 for service out of Sonoma County starting Nov. 19. The aircraft seats 156, compared with 166 aboard the MD-80.
The average age of the airline’s fleet is 26.49 years, according to the Post. The paper reported that Delta Airlines flies more than twice as many MD-80s and MD-88s and more than four times as many of the Airbus models used by Allegiant. But Allegiant has had many more serious incidents.
The Post’s review spans Jan. 1, 2015 through March of this year. A spokeswoman for Allegiant on Friday said the paper “relied on some old information for its review.”
She referred questions to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, who called the Post report “outdated.”
In an email, Gregor stated that the FAA conducted a thorough review of Allegiant Air between April and June. He said the evaluation found a number of deficiencies — none that were considered the most serious or reflected “systemic regulatory problems.”
Gregor stated the review was moved up by two years due to the airline’s “internal issues.” He said the timing change was not unusual, however.
“The FAA changes the dates of these evaluations depending on more than a dozen factors, including management changes, labor disputes, incidents and changes in fleet types,” he wrote.
Gregor stated the FAA will “closely monitor” Allegiant to determine whether the airline is correcting problems outlined in the federal agency’s review.
Allegiant is operating on a month-to-month contract in Sonoma County. Stout said the parties are working on a new five-year operating agreement, which would require approval from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
Stout said he will recommend approval of the new contract despite his concerns about the airline’s performance. Under the tentative terms, either party will be able to get out of the contract, with notice, he said.
“We will still have issues,” he said. “Hopefully customer service will improve over time.”
Some customers have already given up on the airline, however.
After his family’s aborted trip to Arizona to tour colleges in July, Johnson said he and his wife decided to book an upcoming trip to Las Vegas on another airline out of Oakland.
It will cost the couple more in driving time and money. But they don’t want to take the chance of never getting off the ground.
“We couldn’t risk the same thing happening,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.