The current weather in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, is a balmy 82 degrees. The skies are blue, the beaches plentiful, the vacationers giddy. Why wait for summer in mercurial America when you can escape to a place where the season of leisure is a humdrum default?
So thought Malachi Witt and his wife, Erica Larsen, both 34, when they arrived among the palm trees and sandy shores. Indeed, Punta Cana did not disappoint. It was the trip back that sent them reeling.
The couple’s tropical holiday ended on an Allegiant Air flight bound for Pittsburgh on Thursday, when a traveler’s nightmare began.
The plane was experiencing normal turbulence when the passengers felt a jolt that pulsated through the aircraft. Then came a second, bigger jolt — one that flung people from their seats.
“I thought, ‘The plane’s going down, and I’m going to die,'” Witt told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It was like the plane’s falling out of the sky.”
Other passengers described a similarly apocalyptic scene.
“We were flying normal, I was actually sleeping and I heard a little jolt and then all of a sudden a big jolt and I looked over at my mom and she was like flying up in the air,” Heather Osborne told WTAE. “I actually had my seat belt on. My mom didn’t.”
Osborne said her mother hit her head and hip area.
Amanda Kuhn, who was bruised, told WTAE: “I have people’s blood on my feet.”
The flight was diverted and met by emergency crew at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Seven people on board were transported to the hospital, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Three were passengers, and four were flight attendants. None of their injuries were life-threatening.
Mike Jachles with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office told NBC Miami: “The injuries range from bruises, lacerations, facial fractures, to a head injury.”
In total, there were six crew members and 137 passengers on the charter flight.
“Initial reports from our crew indicate that it was unreported moderate clear air turbulence that caused the injuries and subsequent diversion,” Allegiant Air said in a statement to the Post-Gazette.
This isn’t the first time misfortune has been associated with the Las Vegas-based airline, whose travails have been scrupulously documented by Tampa Bay Times reporter William Levesque.
In a piece this January, Levesque spoke with a longtime aircraft mechanic, Greg Marino, who quit his position at Allegiant after just two weeks because “they were operating a dangerous safety culture.”
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the budget airline frequently made emergency landings necessitated by mechanical issues last year. Allegiant responded that they have an “exemplary” safety record and called reports of safety concerns a scheme concocted by the pilots’ union.
Marino told the Times that his observations about threats to safety — from negligent operational checks to an uninspected oil leak — went largely ignored.
“It is going to take a crash to get everybody’s attention on this baloney,” Marino said. “[Allegiant’s] maintenance is nothing short of obscene.”
While the airline was originally slated for a Federal Aviation Administration review in 2018, the FAA moved the inspection up to this spring because of concerns following an aborted takeoff and a plane that landed with low fuel, the Associated Press reported.
An FAA spokesman told the AP that the agency wanted to ensure that Allegiant’s steps “to address various internal issues has resulted in the desired improvements.”
The passengers arriving from Punta Cana, who were transferred to a flight out of Florida, were just relieved to be home.
Gisela Arrow, a 72-year-old who was vacationing with her friend, hugged her husband tightly at the baggage claim as reporters hovered around them.
“It was an experience, I tell you,” Arrow told the Tribune-Review. “I’m so happy to be alive. I’ve been on many flights. This was unreal.”
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