PEOPLExpress passengers stranded after crew unable to fly

PEOPLExpress jet
Ted Kitchens for PEOPLExpress

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Amy Langfield

A new business is bound to have growing pains, customers of PEOPLExpress in Pittsburgh learned the hard way Sunday night.

The low-cost airline had to apologize to 81 passengers via its  Facebook page when both its captain and first officer were unable to fly. The airline is so small that no back-up crew was available.

"The 'perfect storm' if you will occurred when our First Officer received a call late last night his wife was hospitalized after an accident and going into emergency surgery, followed by this morning, shortly before our Newark flight, the Captain sustained an accidental eye injury that prohibited him from flying. We have been working hard to put reserve crews in place, but have not yet and this has resulted in extensive delays and one cancellation," the airline posted on its Facebook page Sunday.

Comments left on the post included people who said they were among the stranded and were angry they could not reach customer service by phone and could not get information at the airport.

One person, Danielle Flipping, said she couldn't get an explanation at the airport and was on hold for an hour and a half. The email cancellation for her 4:45 p.m. flight didn't arrive until 3:50 p.m. "I understand that you are still in your first month of flying but please remember that your customers and your service are priority and sadly, I didn't feel that way today," she wrote on Facebook.

In an email to CNBC on Monday morning, the airline's founder, Mike Morisi, confirmed there were lapses, but the airline did spend more than $20,000 for hotels and meals. The flight, which was not technically canceled, left for Newport News in Virginia at 6:40 a.m. Monday after an "extended delay," he said.

"As you can imagine, the call center was overwhelmed. Customers were told the reason for the delay and what we could do for them," Morisi said.

The Facebook post — and the comments it elicited — noted that some passengers took the delay in stride, while others did not. "Most of the customers affected understand these things do happen and have been kind and understanding and we thank you. On the other hand, many believe that screaming and cursing a 25 year old customer service representative in an airport lobby or taking to this site to yell is the appropriate way to express themselves," the Facebook post stated.

PEOPLExpress started service June 30 on a handful of routes from its headquarters at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport in Virginia. Base fares for tickets started at $59, with extra fees for checked luggage, use of overhead bin space and even in-flight beverages such as coffee, tea or water.

The airline does not yet have agreements in place with other airlines to help get passengers to destinations if there is an emergency, "however we are working on such agreements," Morisi said in his email. The airline also has additional pilots in training who will start flying in two weeks, he said.

"Our business plan is to operate with schedule reliability to build trust and loyalty among our customers. This delay hurts the people at PEOPLExpress as much as it does our customers. We are proud of the fact that our Facebook page is full of compliments about the manner in which our people handle these delays," Morisi said.

PEOPLExpress isn't the only new airline to start service this summer. La Compagnie, an all business-class airline, started service July 21 flying with one plane it leases from Icelandair, which also provides back-up service if something goes wrong. So far, La Compagnie flies only one route from Paris to Newark, New Jersey.

“Since their inaugural flight, there have been two cancellations and all passengers were rebooked through another carrier, received hotel accommodations and a voucher for future travel with La Compagnie,” a company spokeswoman told CNBC on Monday. “La Compagnie and Icelandair have a close partnership, which includes maintenance of the aircraft, and if there was a long-term technical problem with the aircraft, La Compagnie will utilize Icelandair aircraft.”