NBC 10 I-Team: SATA under fire after cancellations leave passengers scrambling

SATA/Azores Airlines, pictured here in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, has come under fire for recent delays and cancellations. (WJAR)

SATA may have spread its wings too wide says one of its hundreds of customers who have dealt with delays, cancellations and being stranded at the airport recently.

SATA, or Azores Airlines, has seen a 35 percent increase in bookings in the last few months in Boston and Providence after it began offering flights from the region to Sao Miguel, Azores, but that marketing boost may be damaged by a number of negative issues including delays and cancellations, and equipment failures.

“It’s a string of unfortunate events,” Jayme Henriques Simões, a SATA/Azores Airlines spokesperson told the NBC 10 I-Team. “Lisbon wasn’t built in a day and what you will see moving forward is on-time performance, new loyalty.”

Ripple effect

A combination of bad luck, poor communication and ongoing labor negotiations caused a ripple effect that was felt by passengers.

One flight experienced multiple delays until it was ultimately cancelled leaving 200 passengers stranded and sleeping on carts in the middle of the airport. Another cancellation left 37 passengers stranded in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel.

One cancellation came when the plane was grounded for 24 hours because the crew and other SATA employees were not getting enough rest.

There was an incident at Boston’s Logan Airport where a cart hit a SATA plane’s engine, causing equipment damage.

There was confusion with a tower and a SATA jet- the jet’s wheel hit a light on the side of the taxiway. Both incidents caused additional delays because the airline had to wait for its planes to be recertified.

And then there was the two-day strike earlier in the season (May 1 and June 1) and the threat of a second possible strike by the crew.

Strike lifted, for now

Additional delays have been thwarted thanks to negotiations between the airline and the National Union of Civil Aviation Flight Personnel (SNPVAC), which was preparing a strike on Friday and another one at the end of the month.

SNPVAC has decided to suspend the strike of the cabin crew of Azores Airlines, for an indefinite period, according to a letter obtained by the Azoriano Oriental, an Azores publication.

That statement says the decision was taken by SNPVAC "after receiving confirmation from the SATA administration" that a global agreement will be respected. Once the agreement is signed, the strike, scheduled between August 23 and 26, will be cancelled.

While the strike has been averted for now, sources tell the NBC 10 I-Team that there is a blackout period. The airline is not accepting reservations between August 23 through August 28. The I-Team tried to book an online reservation during that period and was met with this message: "There are no flights available on requested date. Please select a date with flights available."

Return to Providence

The airline, the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office and one of Rhode Island’s officials -- who helped to bring the airline back to Providence after a long hiatus -- say they are aware of the issues and are addressing them.

The Attorney General's office received two complaints regarding the airline, but of which were "resolved to the consumers' satisfaction," spokesperson Amy Kempe told the NBC 10 I-Team.

Sen. Daniel Da Ponte said he has been stopped at the grocery store and outside church to listen to people’s complaints and said he’s certainly open to relay any complaints and concerns, but as a state legislator he doesn’t think there’s anything more he can do.

“I’ve heard the complaints, but the reality is people have been complaining as long as it has existed,” Sen. Daniel Da Ponte told the NBC 10 I-Team while himself on vacation in the Azores. “It’s a combination of a bit of everything, some bad luck, planning that could have been done differently.”

The airline’s ambitious growth plans may have also been a factor he said.

SATA/Azores Airlines not only provides service to Ponta Delgada, it now also provides service to Barcelona, Cape Verde, Porto, Madeira and Lisbon.

“It’s a conflicting realty of wanting to grow- which is great – that that reality collides with its limitations and the number of aircrafts,” Da Ponte said.

Getting it right

The company admits that there have been several issues, but said new management – both in New Bedford and Ponta Delgada – is making rapid changes to address those issues and get it right.

“It wasn’t the best foot forward, but by the time we come into the fall we’ll be in a better position,” Simões said.

SATA/Azores Airlines has now chartered a few planes so people won’t be delayed and if there are delays it has offered passengers food vouchers and hotel accommodations, depending on the circumstances.

Asked what caused hundreds of passengers to be stranded and sleeping on carts, Simões said, “Flights leave late at night and a couple of times when they have been delayed there aren’t enough hotels nearby.

“The airline is working hard to accommodate its passengers,” he added.

And sometimes it’s an issue with communications. “In other cases there isn’t enough information on when a plane can be recertified,” he added. “The good news is they’ve reacted quickly and are getting charter aircrafts.”

The Hi Fly charter planes will be used until the end of the summer.

Consumer complaints

Antonio Avila, who has been flying SATA for several years, said he and many people in his own community have been negatively impacted by the delays and cancellations. Avila said there are many issues that SATA needs to address and a food voucher is not going to make things better.

For starters, he said there’s a lack of communication from the airline. He also said there isn’t enough competition, which leaves passengers with one airline to choose – SATA.

Avila took his complaint about competition to the government of Portugal, a majority owner in SATA, but received a lackluster response, he said.

That, coupled with an aging fleet, has left Avila and others unhappy, he said.

SATA said their A310s are slated for retirement and will be replaced with A321 NEOs, a variance of the very popular A320.

“The first will join the fleet in December and a second one a few months after that,” Simões said.

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