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High winds cause United Express to reduce passenger load on Aug. 31 flight

On United Express’ third day of operation at the Prescott Regional Airport, strong winds and high temperatures caused the airline (operated by SkyWest) to seek a lighter passenger load on its Prescott-to-Los Angeles flight. Fifteen passengers reportedly volunteered to give up their seats Aug. 31, 2018, in exchange for flight vouchers and incentives. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

On United Express’ third day of operation at the Prescott Regional Airport, strong winds and high temperatures caused the airline (operated by SkyWest) to seek a lighter passenger load on its Prescott-to-Los Angeles flight. Fifteen passengers reportedly volunteered to give up their seats Aug. 31, 2018, in exchange for flight vouchers and incentives. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

A nearly fully booked plane, strong winds, and high temperatures all combined Friday, Aug. 31, to unseat about 15 passengers from a United Express flight from Prescott to Los Angeles.

Prescott officials confirmed this week that on its third day of operations in Prescott, United Express (operated by SkyWest) offered vouchers and other incentives to passengers willing to give up their seats on the afternoon Prescott-to-Los Angeles flight.

The cause: Strong monsoon winds that prompted a change in the plane’s take-off direction.

That, in turn, caused the pilot to seek a lighter load — leading the airline to ask for 15 volunteers who were willing to give up their seats.

“We had an unusual weather event on Friday (Aug. 31),” Prescott Airport Director Robin Sobotta said this week. “The winds were quite strong. There were some tailwinds and crosswinds.”

The windy conditions led to a change from the typical northeasterly direction of takeoff, Sobotta said, noting that the airline chose to depart to the west instead — a move that triggered a load restriction because of the proximity of Granite Mountain.

“In an abundance of caution,” Sobotta said, the pilot made the call to seek a lighter load for the west-bound takeoff.

The situation was compounded by other factors as well, Sobotta said, such as the hot temperatures on Friday.

In a written statement late Sept. 5, SkyWest responded: “Windy conditions in Prescott on Aug. 31 required SkyWest to ask a number of passengers to adjust their travel plans so that flight 5160, operating as United Express to Los Angeles, could depart. Several passengers volunteered to be rebooked on other departures to Los Angeles and received generous compensation. Safety is our top priority and we thank our passengers who volunteered to adjust their travel plans.”

AIRLINE INCENTIVES

Each of the 15 volunteer passengers was offered a voucher for future United Airlines travel, as well as the option of a hotel/food voucher to spend the night in Prescott, or a shuttle to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, and a flight to Los Angeles later Friday.

Sobotta said five passengers chose the shuttle/Phoenix flight option, while 10 opted to stay in Prescott for the night. From there, they were offered a Saturday morning flight to Denver, and either on to Los Angeles, or to their ultimate destination.

Although Sobotta said she could not reveal the exact value of the flight vouchers that the passengers were offered, she said it was “several hundred dollars.”

The airline provided “whatever worked best for the passenger,” Sobotta said, adding that the passengers she spoke with appeared to be satisfied with the vouchers and incentives.

ABOVE EXPECTATIONS

Sobotta and Prescott Community Outreach Manager John Heiney both noted that the upside of the situation was that United Express, which started its Prescott service Aug. 29, had a full Los Angeles flight heading into the Labor Day weekend.

“The booking level is far above expectations,” Heiney said.

Sobotta said the airline reported a 70 percent load factor for August, which included the 29th, 30th, and 31st. “The numbers are very good,” she said.

Of the 50 seats available on United Express’ regional jet, Sobotta said 49 were booked on Aug. 31, and 47 passengers showed up that day. After the incentives, the plane ended up taking off with about 32 passengers.

Along with the weather challenges, Sobotta said the airport’s parking lot also reached full capacity on Friday. To help deal with the overflow, the city worked out an arrangement with the nearby Eviation firm for temporary use of a parking area. In all, she said, “We were able to add 34 more spots.”

The airport also is working with the Hertz rental car office to ensure that its hours coincide with arriving flight times.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or cbarks@prescottaz.com.