Vision flights return to normal in Myrtle Beach but questions remain

dbryant@thesunnews.comJuly 30, 2012 

— Vision Airlines was back on schedule Monday after day-long delays during the weekend that left passengers frustrated and some area leaders concerned about the customer service of the newest carrier to Myrtle Beach.

Passengers waited for more than 12 hours beginning Friday evening and continuing through Sunday at Myrtle Beach International Airport for their flights to leave, with some saying they received little information from Vision during the long delay and vowing never to fly on Vision again. It was the second time since Vision started serving Myrtle Beach in late May that passengers have had to wait for 12 hours or more for their flights.

The problem started Friday evening when a Vision flight left Myrtle Beach but had to return to the Myrtle Beach airport after the crew experienced a mechanical issue, said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Vision had to contract with other FAA-certificated carriers to fly its routes until the aircraft could be repaired or replaced in the rotation.

Vision has a small number of aircraft, so when one needs unexpected maintenance, it can throw off the entire flight schedule until the aircraft can fly again, officials said.

But how Vision dealt with the delays has some officials in Myrtle Beach - a hospitality hub that relies on visitors returning -- concerned.

“Any time you have customer service issues it’s a concern,” said Bill Golden of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.

Vision officials did not respond to voicemails or emails Monday.

“Vision will need to speak for themselves about their performance this past weekend and the one time prior. Suffice to say their performance was not the best on a few levels,” Mike La Pier, Horry County’s airports director, said in an email.

The U.S. Department of Transportation received three complaints about delays between Myrtle Beach and Indianapolis starting Friday and running through Sunday, and the department will look into the delays, spokesman Bill Mosley said. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce received one complaint, spokeswoman Nora Battle said.

Grand Strand leaders said they are concerned about the customer service -- they want visitors to leave the area satisfied and not frustrated -- but they don’t have concerns about Vision’s role in Myrtle Beach.

“As for the airline as a whole, I’m not concerned,” said Kirk Lovell, the airport’s marketing director. “I’m just concerned that passengers get to their destinations when they expect to get to their destinations.”

Juliane Belisle of Cincinnati, who waited in the Myrtle Beach airport for 14 hours for her flight to take off Sunday, said she will drive 14 hours to Myrtle Beach the next time instead of flying. She arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. Sunday for her 7:30 a.m. flight but didn’t leave until 8 p.m., with little information from Vision throughout the day and only a food voucher that was handed out about 2 p.m.

“We couldn’t do anything,” Belisle said. “The issue was zero communication.”

A plane from Miami finally arrived to “rescue” the passengers, but Belisle wonders what implications shifting aircrafts had on the pilots and other flights. She arrived in Cincinnati about 9:30 p.m. to find a group of Vision passengers waiting to fly out.

“They were furious... ‘Yeah dude, we’ve been on the other end of it,’” she said.

Vision has had a rough start in Myrtle Beach, with passengers frustrated by long delays twice in the past two months and traffic short of expectations. After a month of flying to Myrtle Beach, Vision dropped two of the eight cities it was flying to from Myrtle Beach saying demand wasn’t there.

Vision carried 3,728 passengers out of Myrtle Beach in June, the first full month it flew here, according to statistics from Myrtle Beach International Airport.

“Their overall performance in the market has been pretty good,” La Pier said in an email. “They seem to be growing slowly in the markets they continue to serve but not as well as we or they might like.”

A lack of promotional time -- Vision announced in early May that it would start flying here at the end of that month -- likely also hurt because many vacationers had already made their summer plans by the time the service was announced, La Pier said.

“They got a less than optimal opportunity to introduce themselves to our community and the new markets they offer service from,” he said.

Vision has faced other challenges outside of Myrtle Beach this month. On July 18, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous ruling that the company, which also provides charter service for the government, improperly withheld hazard pay from employees flying into Iraq and Afghanistan. The company told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it plans to fight the $5.3 million ruling, which could also leave the company open to punitive suits by affected workers.

And July 12, the U.S. Department of Transportation fined Vision $75,000 related to price advertising and filing of disability-related complaints. Vision advertised fares that did not include taxes and fees as required, though the carrier said it fixed them as soon as it was told they didn’t comply. Vision also didn’t file disability complaints in 2009 -- the company didn’t have any and said it didn’t know it still had to file a report -- and in 2010, there was only one but the company said it inadvertently missed the deadline to file because it hadn’t filed one previously, according to documents from DOT.

Belisle, who hadn’t visited the Grand Strand for three years because of the down economy, flew to Myrtle Beach on Thursday for a long weekend getaway at the beach she loves. She had never heard of Vision before, but gave the airline a shot.

“But now I really regret that,” she said.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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