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Do Fresno passengers face a gamble with this airline's Vegas flights?

Allegiant Air is the only airline offering service from Fresno to Las Vegas

The low-cost, no-frills airline is the only company with flights between Fresno and Las Vegas. It flew 188 round trips from January through May 2018. It has the highest rate of delayed departures from Fresno.
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The low-cost, no-frills airline is the only company with flights between Fresno and Las Vegas. It flew 188 round trips from January through May 2018. It has the highest rate of delayed departures from Fresno.

Allegiant Air, the budget airline and travel company that was born in Fresno nearly 20 years ago, is the only air carrier offering nonstop flights between Fresno and Las Vegas. Its flights routinely take off more than three-quarters full – testament to the popularity of Sin City as a destination and the airline’s monopoly on the route.

But passengers who book on Allegiant may feel like they’re facing a gamble before they even get off the ground at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, thanks to the airline’s spotty track record. Recent months have been filled with delays and cancellations both to and from Fresno. On July 30 and 31, the airline canceled five scheduled flights between Fresno and Las Vegas – two departures from Las Vegas and three from Fresno.

It was all part of a bad weekend for Allegiant. Fox5 News in Las Vegas reported that the airline canceled or rescheduled 11 outgoing flights from McCarran International Airport within a 48-hour period, including the two flights to Fresno.

Allegiant was established in Fresno in 1998 but is now headquartered in Las Vegas.

Clovis residents Pat and Larry Grossi were among those affected by the airline’s problems on July 30. Pat Grossi posted a complaint shortly before 2 p.m. on the airline’s Facebook page as the day dragged on while the couple waited at Fresno Yosemite International: “Flight to Las Vegas delayed again, now to leave at 4:10, and we’ve been here since 8:30 for a 10:23 flight. This is ridiculous.”

“They didn’t really tell us anything until later in the afternoon,” Pat Grossi told The Bee on Friday. “They said the plane had a mechanical issue. After they got it fixed and finally got to Fresno, they had to have a mechanic come and check it again.”

By that time, Grossi added, airline staff said the flight crew would be on overtime to return to Las Vegas, so Allegiant tried to get a crew from Las Vegas to Fresno for the flight. After passengers had been in the terminal for about 10 hours, “at about 6:30 or 7 p.m., they just canceled it and scheduled us for 7 the next morning,” she said.

Flight to Las Vegas delayed again, now to leave at 4:10, and we’ve been here since 8:30 for a 10:23 flight. This is ridiculous.

Pat Grossi of Clovis, posting on Facebook about her July 30 Allegiant Air flight from Fresno

With each delay throughout the day, however, each passenger received a $50 voucher, “and when it was canceled, they gave us two vouchers each for a future flight,” Grossi said. The couple did get to Vegas the next day, and their return flight a few days later departed on time.

Allegiant canceled or rescheduled a total of six Fresno-to-Las Vegas flights from April through July. But cancellations or rescheduled flights aren’t the airline’s only issue.

FlightAware.com, an online flight-tracking website, shows that from April through July, more than 34 percent of Allegiant’s 149 departures from Fresno were late taking off by at least 15 minutes. The average delay among those late flights was almost 70 minutes – and some were several hours late taking off.

In contrast, data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that other airlines serving Fresno collectively reported more than 4,000 departures, with just over 16 percent experiencing delays of 15 minutes or more, and 31 cancellations, over the first six months of the year.

“We know that any last-minute change and disruption to travel plans is frustrating to passengers, as it is disappointing to us when we fail to meet expectations,” Hilarie Grey, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said in an email to The Bee. “We make every effort to reschedule flights  and to assist those passengers traveling on the reschedule with hotel accommodations for the night.”

“Unfortunately, there can be instances where unanticipated issues intervene and there is a delay or need to reschedule a flight.”

The carrier has been plagued by more than delays and cancellations. A Tampa Bay Times investigation published last year found that Allegiant Air’s aircraft are four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other U.S. airlines. In 2015, Allegiant jets were forced to make unexpected landings at least 77 times for serious mechanical failures, the Times’ first-of-its-kind analysis of federal aviation records shows.

Older fleet

While every airline confronts schedule issues that can be caused by weather, air traffic delays, runway conditions or mechanical problems, Grey said “there are some additional factors unique to Allegiant including the schedule we fly and the size of our fleet, which make ‘recovery’ options in the event of a delay a little more complex.”

Grey said that Grossi’s July 30 flight, Flight 515, was rescheduled “due to a mechanical issue with that particular plane.” The other rescheduled flights between Fresno and Las Vegas on July 30 and 31 were affected by aircraft maintenance needs at other airports.

“Safety is always our first priority, so if there is even a minor indication that an aircraft may not be able to operate at 100 percent, we will always err on the side of safety and ensure every issue is addressed,” Grey said. She added that Allegiant has since moved additional airplanes to Las Vegas to increase the airline’s flexibility.

One factor affecting operations is that more than half of Allegiant’s aircraft are McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jets – airplanes that are between 26 and 32 years old, according to databases at Airfleets.net and the Federal Aviation Administration. Not only are they less fuel-efficient than newer jets, but they require more maintenance. Of the 149 scheduled flights from Fresno to Las Vegas from April through June, all but 35 were aboard the MD-80 class of jets, according to FlightAware.com.

Allegiant reports that in addition to 48 MD-80s, its fleet also includes several Boeing 757 jets built between 1992 and 1994; 17 Airbus A319 jets that range in age from 10 to 13 years old; and 16 newer Airbus A320 jets that are less than 10 years old. A handful of those A320s are brand new – part of Allegiant’s drive to modernize its fleet and be rid of its aging MD-80s by 2019.

Making changes

That, however, doesn’t diminish the flood of current complaints from disgruntled customers on the airline’s Facebook page regarding customer service, flight delays, rescheduling and cancellations across the country.

Allegiant’s executives acknowledged the challenges in a July 26 conference call about the company’s second-quarter financial results.

We have found a lot, and we understand more about what we were doing and what could be done better.

Allegiant Air president John Redmond, on evaluating the airline’s maintenance and operations practices

“When you look at our operations in quarter two, we did not meet our expectations at all and surely not those of our customers,” Allegiant president John Redmond said. Some acute problems the airline encountered in April, May and June, Redmond said, prompted “a real deep dive” into the company’s maintenance and staffing practices. “We wanted to make sure  mostly in the area of maintenance, that we had a much better grasp on what we were doing.”

“We have found a lot, and we understand more about what we were doing and what could be done better,” Redmond added.

Acting chief operating officer Scott Sheldon said during the conference call that the airline pulled some of its maintenance technicians out of training so they could be available in the field making repairs to aircraft and created a new “recovery base” in Ohio to help the airline respond better when airplanes are grounded by mechanical issues.

“Substantial management changes” were also made at some of Allegiant’s larger bases, including Las Vegas, where “we went through all the management side and have new faces and fresh blood there,” Sheldon added.

Redmond, Sheldon and chairman/CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said during the conference call that they believed the changes made since mid-June had put the worst of the problems behind them. “Essentially, we’re just fixing airplanes better,” Gallagher said.

But that was before the problem-riddled weekend at the end of July. Grey told The Bee that July 30 was the airline’s single busiest day of the year for the number of scheduled flights.

Up to now, Allegiant has not been big enough among U.S. airlines to be required to report its on-time performance to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But it will be required by the government to begin reporting its on-time and cancellation statistics starting in January.

While many customers who commented on Allegiant’s Facebook page pledged that they would “never again” book a flight on Allegiant, Grossi said she won’t hesitate to try again. “I’m sure some people might have missed connecting flights, and some people were out of cash (for hotel rooms that night in Las Vegas),” she said. “But it wasn’t essential for us to get there Sunday afternoon. We sat at the airport all day, but now we have a free flight.”

Allegiant Air’s Fresno history

June 1998: Started in Fresno under CEO Mitch Allee as a charter company with one DC-9

February 2000: Received authority to fly as a scheduled carrier with routes from Fresno to Las Vegas and Long Beach

December 2000: Filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, five days after dropping 4 of 5 routes (keeping Las Vegas)

June 2001: Judge OKs restructuring plan and new CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. moved headquarters to Las Vegas

2005: Earned $7.3 million on $132.5 million in revenue

2006: Allegiant Travel Co. makes public stock offering

Today: Serves Las Vegas and Mesa, Arizona from Fresno

Compiled by The Fresno Bee from archives

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