Broken Spirit Plane Causes Cancellations at LAX, Spirit Says It’s Airport’s Fault

Aug 29, 2017

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While we are all familiar with flight cancellations due to weather or mechanical delays, this is a new one to us. On Saturday evening, a Spirit plane suffered a malfunction and blocked a taxiway in LAX for hours, trapping aircraft and leading to cancellations of nine flights operated by other airlines in addition to the canceled Spirit flight. Spirit disputes that its aircraft malfunctioned and attributes the incident to a groove in the pavement, while the LAX airport says this is not the case.

We first heard about this situation from TPG reader Peter G., who’d provided us the firsthand report of the opening of the brand new LAX Terminal 5 Admirals Club. The reason he became fortuitously the lounge’s first visitor was, in fact, precisely the cancellation of his previous evening’s flight because of the Spirit-induced delay. He emailed us the following:

My flight was cancelled after nearly four hours of delays. Weirdly, a Spirit Airlines plane had been backed out of its gate and its brakes froze right when it was behind our plane. They couldn’t get it to move until a few minutes after our pilot cancelled the flight due to crew [legality].

To confirm our reader’s account, we reached out to American Airlines. Sure enough, that’s what happened, and Peter’s flight wasn’t the only one canceled. Three American Airlines flights, and one Frontier flight, ended up being canceled due to this broken-down Spirit aircraft.

A Spirit spokesperson told us there was “an issue at the airport,” adding that “we rebooked our customers on the next available flight and apologize for any inconvenience.”

Here’s the situation as we understand it.

LAX Terminal Map 4-6

At 6:43pm, Spirit flight 424 to Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP) pushed back from gate 55A. Due to mechanical malfunction, the aircraft (registration N667NK, delivered to Spirit in April 2016) became both inoperable and unmovable. Because of the tight space between Terminals 4 and 5, this aircraft trapped other aircraft in the alleyway.

“NK flight 424 pushed back from a Terminal 5 gate onto Taxilane C-9 on Saturday evening. The pilot was unable to taxi out and reported a problem with locked brakes. Since the aircraft was disabled in an alleyway between Terminal 4 and Terminal 5 multiple flights could not access gates through this Taxilane,” a spokesperson for Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA), which operates LAX, told us in an email. “The issues took a few hours to resolve which resulted in multiple AA, HA, B6 flights delayed in getting to gates, resulting in cancellations.  There were 24 delays and 9 cancellations.”

Spirit later disputed this, attributing the responsibility for the aircraft getting stuck to a groove in the pavement. We reached out to LAWA to inquire, and a spokesperson, while not disputing that there was a groove in the taxiway, said that “our understanding is that the issue with the pavement was not enough [to render the aircraft immovable] and that they had a situation with the brakes.” In addition, when a tow truck came to pull the Spirit aircraft out of the way, “the tow bar broke (…) eventually they got a new tow bar, but the initial getting stuck was due to brakes.”  There is “a difference of opinion” between LAWA and Spirit about what took place, the spokesperson said.

An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed the cancellations and noted that there were additional departure and arrival delays due to the Spirit mishap. Passengers were re-accommodated on the next available flights. Unfortunately for flyers, all of these flights were the next day. In addition to the American, Hawaiian and JetBlue flights mentioned by LAWA, Frontier also suffered at least one cancellation. “Frontier flight 406 operating from Los Angeles to Denver was cancelled as a result of a disabled aircraft in the alleyway at LAX,” a Frontier spokesperson said. “Passengers were accommodated on an extra section flight departing Los Angeles on Sunday morning.”

This is a perfect example of why you should always book flights with a travel card with trip delay insurance. If passengers had booked with a Citi Prestige Card (3+ hour delay), Chase Sapphire Reserve (6+ hours or overnight) or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (12+ hours or overnight), they’d be eligible for reimbursement of up to $500 of expenses per person for the overnight delay. That’s even if they booked the flight to DEN, which is often sold for just $42 one-way.

This bit of bad luck for American Airlines comes just a couple of weeks after a Delta 737 struck an American Airlines 757, ripping off a piece of the aircraft’s tail. American was able to avoid a cancellation for that flight by activating a backup 757 to operate that flight, departing six hours after scheduled.

This post has been updated, first to reflect a higher number of cancellations than originally reported, and subsequently to reflect diverging accounts of the incident from Spirit Airlines and Los Angeles World Airport. 

Featured image FG/Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images

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