Al­le­giant Air faces scru­tiny af­ter 60 Min­utes re­port

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - DAVID KOENIG

AL­LE­GIANT Air is fight­ing to re­as­sure trav­ellers and pro­tect its rep­u­ta­tion af­ter re­newed ques­tions about safety at the low-cost car­rier. Safety ex­perts say the num­bers tell an­other story. There have been far too many aborted take­offs, in-flight me­chan­i­cal prob­lems and emer­gency land­ings in­volv­ing Al­le­giant planes in re­cent years.

The CBS pro­gram 60 Min­utes re­ported that Al­le­giant ex­pe­ri­enced more than 100 se­ri­ous me­chan­i­cal in­ci­dents on flights be­tween Jan­uary 2016 and Oc­to­ber 2017.

“The num­ber of in­flight in­ci­dents that Al­le­giant has had speaks vol­umes, it is sim­ply un­ac­cept­able,” Alan Price, a for­mer chief pilot for Delta Air Lines, told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Al­le­giant’s record of break­downs ap­pears re­lated partly to the age of its fleet, par­tic­u­larly its MD-80 planes, which are nearly 28 years old on av­er­age and re­quire more main­te­nance than newer planes.

The air­line plans to re­tire all of its MD-80s by the end of this year. In the mean­time, they will con­tinue to fly pas­sen­gers from smaller air­ports to re­sort lo­ca­tions such as Las Ve­gas and Or­lando, Fla.

CBS said that Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) records it got by fil­ing a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest in­di­cate that Al­le­giant flights were 3 ½ times more likely to suf­fer an in-flight break­down than flights op­er­ated by Amer­i­can, United, Delta, JetBlue or Spirit. The re­port also aired a long-run­ning ac­cu­sa­tion by the Team­sters union lo­cal rep­re­sent­ing Al­le­giant pi­lots that the air­line dis­cour­ages pi­lots from re­port­ing me­chan­i­cal prob­lems with planes. It also took aim at the FAA for fail­ing to take ac­tion against Al­le­giant.

Al­le­giant is­sued a state­ment by Eric Gust, vi­cepres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions, charg­ing that the CBS story told a “false nar­ra­tive” about Al­le­giant and the FAA. He said the air­line com­plies with all FAA re­quire­ments, and that any sug­ges­tion the air­line muz­zled em­ploy­ees “is of­fen­sive and defam­a­tory.”

In a memo to em­ploy­ees, CEO Mau­rice Gal­lagher and other ex­ec­u­tives said they were ready “to fight back” against the net­work. They said the story was based on out­dated statis­tics — sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions were raised in 2016 by the Tampa Bay Times in Florida — and was prompted by a pilot who was fired af­ter or­der­ing an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion in which some pas­sen­gers were in­jured. The pilot is now su­ing the air­line and one of his paid ex­perts was fea­tured promi­nently in the 60 Min­utes broad­cast.

Price, the for­mer Delta chief pilot, said fir­ing a pilot for or­der­ing an evac­u­a­tion would be “so far be­yond the bound as to con­sti­tute safety malfea­sance.” He said the mes­sage to other Al­le­giant pi­lots was “that you bet­ter not ‘waste’ com­pany re­sources in a con­flict with safety,” which he said seemed to in­di­cate that the air­line was putting eco­nom­ics over safety.

Todd Cur­tis, an avi­a­tion-safety con­sul­tant, said he tells rel­a­tives to avoid the air­line. The last time he did that for a U.S. air­line of sim­i­lar size “was ValuJet prior to the 1996 crash in the Ever­glades,” he said. Gal­lagher was a founder, di­rec­tor and ex­ec­u­tive at ValuJet.

In­vestors fear that neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity will drive trav­ellers away from Al­le­giant. Shares of par­ent com­pany Al­le­giant Travel Co. fell $4.65, or 3.1 per cent, to $146.40 on Mon­day af­ter drop­ping 8.6 per cent Fri­day in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a dam­ag­ing news re­port.

Air­lines are fre­quently the sub­ject of bad pub­lic­ity, of­ten around poor cus­tomer ser­vice. United Air­lines was ex­co­ri­ated last year af­ter of­fi­cers blood­ied and dragged a 69-year-old man off a plane to make room for a crew mem­ber, yet the in­ci­dent seemed to have no ef­fect on ticket sales.

It could be dif­fer­ent for Al­le­giant, how­ever, be­cause the fo­cus now is on whether it’s safe to fly on the air­line.

“True or false, that was 30 min­utes of hor­ri­ble pub­lic­ity for Al­le­giant,” Joseph DeNardi, an air­line an­a­lyst for Stifel, said of the 60 Min­utes broad­cast. “We’d be sur­prised if there isn’t an im­pact to book­ings in the near­ish term.”

Al­le­giant does not fly to Canada. How­ever, many Win­nipeg­gers drive to Grand Forks to catch cheap Al­le­giant flights to des­ti­na­tions such as Las Ve­gas, which can be had for as lit­tle as US$197 re­turn, or Grand Forks to Phoenix for US$161 re­turn.

Al­le­giant may have some cause to be­lieve it can weather the storm, how­ever. Most con­sumers com­pare prices when shop­ping for an air­line ticket and Al­le­giant has some of the cheap­est fares around. It also has lim­ited com­pe­ti­tion on many of its routes.

Al­le­giant buys used planes to keep costs down. As of Feb. 2, it op­er­ated 37 McDon­nell-Dou­glas MD-80 planes and 53 Air­bus A319 and A320 jets. The av­er­age age of its fleet was 18.5 years, but when the MD-80s are re­tired it will be in line with other U.S. air­line fleets, which range from 5.1 years at Spirit Air­lines to 16.7 years at Delta.

Older planes can be op­er­ated very safely, but they tend to burn more fuel and re­quire more main­te­nance.

The at­ten­tion on Al­le­giant has also re­newed ques­tions about the FAA’s per­for­mance.

The FAA in­creased its mon­i­tor­ing of Al­le­giant in 2016 be­cause of labour ten­sion with its pi­lots.

In 2016, the agency moved up a rou­tine re­view of the air­line by two years af­ter a se­ries of aborted take­offs and other safety in­ci­dents. FAA of­fi­cials took no en­force­ment ac­tion against Al­le­giant and said they were sat­is­fied that the air­line was ad­dress­ing prob­lems found by in­spec­tors.

FAA as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor of safety Ali Bahrami de­fended the agency’s per­for­mance by point­ing to the lack of a fa­tal crash in­volv­ing a U.S. air­line since 2009 and said FAA reg­u­la­tion “has been very suc­cess­ful” in push­ing air­lines “to the high­est level of safety.”

Since the 1990s, the FAA has stressed vol­un­tary re­port­ing of po­ten­tial safety is­sues be­fore tak­ing puni­tive en­force­ment ac­tions.

John Cox, a for­mer air­line pilot and now a safety con­sul­tant, said the FAA needs to ex­am­ine the safety cul­ture at Al­le­giant, but he dis­missed the no­tion among FAA crit­ics that the agency lets air­lines po­lice them­selves.

He said the FAA is be­ing “a safety part­ner” to the air­lines and “it is work­ing.”

DAVID BECKER / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

The CBS pro­gram 60 Min­utes re­ported that Al­le­giant ex­pe­ri­enced more than 100 se­ri­ous me­chan­i­cal in­ci­dents on flights be­tween Jan­uary 2016 and Oc­to­ber 2017.

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