Carrier fined for role in Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air flight cancellations

Vision Airlines, one of several carriers for now defunct Direct Air, was fined by federal regulators Wednesday for its role in the abrupt cancellation of Direct Air flights in the spring, adding to Vision’s ongoing troubles.

Vision Airlines, which had a rocky run in Myrtle Beach this summer flying routes under its own name after Direct Air shut down, was fined $50,000 by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday for canceling Direct Air’s charter flights in March less than 10 days before their scheduled departure, a violation of public charter rules. Cancellations within 10 days of departure must be because it’s physically impossible to fly, according to DOT regulations. Vision also failed to ensure return flights for round-trip passengers who had already flown part of their trip.

Direct Air flights abruptly stopped late March 12, leaving vacationers stranded -- many in the Myrtle Beach area -- and other travelers with booked tickets scrambling to find other ways to get to their destinations. Direct Air, which had flights to the Northeast and Florida, filed for bankruptcy three days later. Vision Airlines stopped flying Direct Air routes March 13, according to DOT.

“Airline passengers should be able to book their trips without having to worry about a last-minute cancellation or being stranded away from home,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a news release. “DOT will continue to take enforcement action against airlines and charter operators when they violate our airline consumer protection rules.”

A representative for Vision Airlines could not be reached Wednesday.

The fine is the latest in a series of setbacks for the 18-year-old carrier.

After Direct Air’s demise, Vision started flying to Myrtle Beach under its own name in May, but had a rough run. It started by serving eight destinations, including several in Ohio, but quickly dropped some of those cities and encountered nearly day-long delays during the summer on other flights, sparking waves of criticisms from passengers.

Vision carried 11,362 passengers out of Myrtle Beach during the five months it served the area this year, according to statistics from Myrtle Beach International Airport. Vision announced in early May that it would start flying to Myrtle Beach later that month. The seasonal flights ended in September, about a month earlier than originally planned.

Vision officials have not responded to repeated emails and calls since the summer from The Sun News asking whether it would return to serve Myrtle Beach next year.

Myrtle Beach International Airport doesn’t know whether Vision will return, airport spokesman Kirk Lovell said.

“We haven’t heard one way or another,” he said. “We can’t even get them on the phone.”

This is the second time Vision has been fined by DOT this year. On 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.

Also in July, 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 in July that it planned to fight the $5.3 million ruling, which could also leave the company open to punitive suits by affected workers.

Vision is the third carrier fined by the DOT for its role in the abrupt cancellation of Direct Air flights in mid-March. Xtra Airways was fined $300,000 in October and World Atlantic Airlines was fined $180,000 in July, heftier fines than Vision’s because they had more violations of DOT’s charter rules.

DOT and bankruptcy court officials are still sorting through Direct Air’s demise. Escrow accounts, required to hold customers’ payments until the flights are taken, were way underfunded. Direct Air’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case, with the carrier aiming to reorganize, was quickly converted to Chapter 7 liquidation in the spring, meaning the end of the Myrtle Beach-based carrier. As of this summer, DOT had calculated $9.6 million in fines for Direct Air for its sudden shutdown, according to bankruptcy court filings.

DOT spokesman Bill Mosley declined to say whether more fines would be coming in the case. Five carriers handled flights for Direct Air before its shutdown.

“This is still under investigation,” he said. “We are looking at all the carriers that flew for them as well as Direct Air.”