No injuries, but some decry Allegiant customer service in wake of Duluth flightOne hundred sixteen passengers and four crew members were aboard Allegiant Air flight 449 — an MD-83 twin-engine jet, built in 1987 — when it departed from Duluth and had to return due to engine problems on Friday evening.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Jessica Felosi was pumped up for a “mom weekend” in Las Vegas with a friend when she arrived at the Duluth International Airport on Friday. It would be the Grand Rapids woman’s first time away from her son since the 1-year-old was born.
Saturday afternoon, she was back at the same terminal, growing increasingly frustrated by what she considers Allegiant Air’s poor customer service in the wake of mechanical problems shortly after takeoff Friday that forced flight 449 to make an emergency landing back in Duluth.
“I understand things go wrong,” Felosi said from the terminal, where she was waiting to be ushered through security. “The response (from Allegiant) has been so disappointing. You call customer service and you can’t talk to anyone.”
Felosi was one of 116 passengers and four crew members aboard Allegiant flight 449 — an MD-83 twin-engine jet, built in 1987 — when it departed from Duluth on Friday evening. She and her friend were excited about the quick break from the responsibilities of motherhood they had been planning for months. It was to end when they returned, along with most of their fellow passengers, on Monday.
The view from her window seat was largely blocked by one of the plane’s engines, Felosi said.
Shortly into the flight, she heard a loud bang, “almost like an explosion,” she said. She felt the plane drop, and then begin to descend. Cool air rushed into the cabin. A flight attendant said she didn’t know what had happened. “We’ll let you know when we know,” Felosi recalled the attendant telling passengers.
It seemed like several minutes before the captain announced that an engine was causing trouble and they were heading back to Duluth, Felosi said.
The jet was about 50 miles out and was climbing to 27,000 feet when the engine problem developed, said Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority. The crew shut down the affected engine, declared an emergency and told air traffic control they were returning to Duluth, Ryks said. Emergency crews were dispatched to the airport, but the plane landed just before 9 p.m. without incident.
Allegiant has a protocol in place for such incidents, spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said on Saturday. Passengers are met when they return to the airport terminal and provided with food and beverages. The airline offers to change their flights to a different day, if they prefer. They are given full-credit refunds if they want to cancel. If they live more than 50 miles from the airport, they are provided with hotel vouchers. They are offered a $75-off voucher on their next Allegiant flight.
But not all of those things happened in this case, Felosi said. There wasn’t any food at the airport, she said. She and her friend were offered the opportunity to stay in town and chose Residence Inn, but weren’t certain if they would receive refunds for the full amount. They were offered vouchers for their next flights, but for $50 and not $75, she said.
Wheeler said Allegiant doesn’t have personnel at the airport to offer passengers refunds and vouchers, but they will be paid through the mail. The company wants to make sure passengers are able to spend the night comfortably, but it doesn’t cover the priciest hotels, she said. “We’re a low-cost carrier. We’re not going to put you up in the Hyatt Regency.”
Felosi said she and her friend were the last people to leave the airport and didn’t get to the hotel until close to midnight on Friday. By then, they had been told the replacement flight would depart at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and that they should be back at the airport by noon.
But the Allegiant counter didn’t open until 12:40 p.m., and passengers then learned the plane wouldn’t take off until 3:30 p.m., she said. When she called the airline, she was treated rudely, Felosi said, and told to send an e-mail. Monaco Air Duluth personnel who staff the counter weren’t in a position to offer information, she said. “I feel sorry for them. … They have felt the heat from everyone.”
While passengers waited for their flight, a crew of Allegiant mechanics was working on the tarmac on the disabled plane.
“The mechanics are looking over the engine now, diagnosing it and replacing the engine in that plane,” Wheeler said. The passengers “will not be put on the same plane.”
Asked why Allegiant didn’t also send some customer service representatives, Wheeler said that’s a judgment call the company makes depending on the situation.
“One of the ways we keep our fares very low is … we keep a slim team and we work really hard,” Wheeler said. “I understand from the passenger’s point of view it can be frustrating. It’s part of our business model to not have more people than we need to do the job.”
The rescheduled flight left Duluth at 3:55 p.m. Saturday and landed safely in Las Vegas, according to Allegiant’s website.
Ryks said Friday night’s incident didn’t shake his confidence in Allegiant, which has flown out of Duluth since January 2006.
“They have a strong, very strong, safety record,” Ryks said on Saturday. “Anytime you’re dealing with aircraft that are mechanically driven, at times you’ll have an issue. The aircraft is designed to be able to fly on one engine.”
Allegiant, which has been in business since 1999, has never had a crash, death or major injury, Wheeler said.
“We’re very lucky to have a great crew of people who are very good at their jobs,” she said. “Safety is always our No. 1 priority.”
Only one incident in Allegiant’s history has been serious enough to require a National Transportation Safety Board report, Wheeler said. That was in 2007, when an Allegiant plane landed safely in Orlando without its nose landing gear after the gear malfunctioned. No one was injured.
A review of news reports from the Associated Press and other sources indicates incidents in which Allegiant planes turned back after striking birds, and several engine malfunctions. Among them:
Both Ryks and Wheeler noted that the number of incidents is few in comparison with the number of flights made. Allegiant has 178 routes, Wheeler said, and at least half of those are flown on any given day.
Ryks said the response of emergency crews on the ground demonstrated the value of preparation and training.
“You never know when something like this is going to happen, and fortunately this turned out with a very good ending,” Ryks said. “We’ve got great people at the airport.”