Era Aviation resumed some flights Monday after grounding its entire fleet for the first time over the weekend when a federal investigation showed cockpit voice recorders were out of compliance with Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Cockpit voice recorders in the company's 12 planes had a recording capacity of 30 minutes instead of the two-hour capacity required by the FAA, said Era spokesman Steve Smith.
The company rush-ordered about $250,000 in new equipment that's in the process of being installed.
Smith said that concerns over stormy weather throughout Southcentral Alaska first prompted flight cancellations Saturday afternoon.
During that time, the company learned about its compliance problem, he said, and the decision was made to ground the fleet completely.
All flights on Saturday and Sunday were canceled.
After that, customers were told the cancellations were due to the equipment problem, not just weather, Smith said.
Customers have been forgiving, he said.
Era told customers Sunday that flights were canceled due to mechanical problems and put stranded passengers up in Anchorage hotels.
Father John Dunlop, the dean of an Orthodox seminary in Kodiak whose flight home had been canceled Sunday night, was one of them.
"Obviously, it's rather inconvenient," he said. "But I'm not irate."
On Monday afternoon at Stevens International Airport, Dunlop and other Era customers waited to board flights to Kenai and Kodiak that had previously been canceled or delayed.
Most flights for the day were still canceled, said a desk agent.
Questions remain about how Era got into the situation of having to suspend its flying operations for days while it scrambled to install the updated recorders. The federal regulation in question has been in place since March 2008, according to the National Business Aviation Association, and actively enforced for five months.
The problem came to light during an FAA inspection following a Sept. 5 incident when an Era flight from Anchorage to Homer suddenly lost 5,000 feet in altitude with 12 people and three crew members onboard.
Keith Holloway, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators are still trying to determine what caused the plane to drop.
The FAA began enforcing the new two-hour requirement in April 2012 after a two-year extension, said Seattle-based FAA regional spokesman Allen Kenitzer.
Era officials are not saying exactly how or why they were out of compliance.
That's being investigated internally, Smith said.
"We didn't follow those requirements, obviously, because we were caught short," he said.
Era planes are frequently inspected by the FAA and other regulators, said Smith.
"(Era) is probably one of the most inspected airlines around because we do a lot of business with the oil companies and they require us to be inspected, as does every other agency," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News