Lo­cal Al­le­giant pas­sen­gers re­think us­ing air­line

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Martin E. Co­mas Staff Writer

Ed­die Fisher and his wife have long used Al­le­giant Air to fly to Hager­stown, Md., from Or­lando San­ford In­ter­na­tional Air­port to visit their fam­i­lies be­cause of the air­line’s low-cost fares and the direct flights into the smaller air­ports.

But af­ter a scathing “60 Min­utes” re­port that aired Sun­day blast­ing the dis­count car­rier’s safety record, Fisher said it’s un­likely he or his fam­ily will ever use the air­line again.

“No. Ab­so­lutely not,” said Fisher, 60, of Apopka. “It’s not worth the stress of know­ing some­thing might go wrong with the plane. When they see smoke in the cabin or wiring prob­lems, it’s just not worth the cheap tick­ets any­more.”

Fisher is among a grow­ing num­ber of fliers — both in Cen­tral Florida, where Al­le­giant is the dom­i­nant air­line at the San­ford air­port, and across the coun­try — who are think­ing twice about board­ing an Al­le­giant plane af­ter the CBS News in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed more than 100 se­ri­ous

me­chan­i­cal in­ci­dents or fail­ures be­tween Jan­uary 2016 and last Oc­to­ber.

That’s three times as many me­chan­i­cal prob­lems with flights when com­pared with six other ma­jor air­lines — in­clud­ing Delta, Amer­i­can and United — over the same time pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Capt. Eric Gust, Al­le­giant vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions, crit­i­cized the seg­ment in a state­ment af­ter the broad­cast.

“This un­o­rig­i­nal and out­dated story bears no re­sem­blance to Al­le­giant’s op­er­a­tions to­day, and shows a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of FAA com­pli­ance prac­tice and his­tory,” Gust said. “It fo­cused pri­mar­ily on events of several years past, prior to the FAA’s most re­cent com­pre­hen­sive au­dit of Al­le­giant Air, which re­vealed no sys­temic or reg­u­la­tory de­fi­cien­cies.”

He added that the CBS story “was in­sti­gated by a ter­mi­nated em­ployee, cur­rently en­gaged in a law­suit seek­ing mon­e­tary dam­ages from the com­pany.”

Al­le­giant flies to 78 des­ti­na­tions in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico out of San­ford. Air­port spokes­woman Lau­ren Rowe re­leased a state­ment that noted the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “mis­sion is to pro­vide the safest, most ef­fi­cient aero­space sys­tem in the world. The San­ford Air­port Au­thor­ity has to­tal con­fi­dence in the FAA.”

Other air­port of­fi­cials wouldn’t com­ment fur­ther.

The blis­ter­ing re­port comes as the air­port is about to be­gin a $60.6 mil­lion ex­pan­sion project at the San­ford air­port that will add new gates, bag­gage carousels and garage en­trances. That ex­pan­sion, air­port of­fi­cials say, is to han­dle the more than 2.6 mil­lion pas­sen­gers, a nearly three-fold in­crease from 901,862 pas­sen­gers in 2012, at the fast-grow­ing air fa­cil­ity.

The ex­pan­sion project will be paid for with funds from the state De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion and rev­enue from pas­sen­ger fa­cil­ity charges, a $4 fee tacked onto ev­ery ticket into and out of the air­port.

Other air­lines at the air­port in­clude Via Air, which flies to eight des­ti­na­tions in the U.S., and Suri­nam Air, which trav­els to Aruba, Guyana and Suri­nam.

While the long-term im­pact of the ad­verse pub­lic­ity is un­clear, Al­le­giant’s stock price Mon­day plum­meted 4.65 per­cent to $146.40 a share.

Some Al­le­giant cus­tomers were weigh­ing their op­tions.

Gus Bobes, 55, of Mait­land, has flown several times a year on Al­le­giant be­tween San­ford and the Tri-Cities Air­port in eastern Tennessee to spend time at a moun­tain cabin.

He likes the avail­able park­ing, less-crowded at­mos­phere and faster se­cu­rity lines at the San­ford air­port. Also fa­vor­able is that he can fly Al­le­giant di­rectly into Tennessee, rather than hav­ing the has­sle of wait­ing for a con­nect­ing flight at an­other air­port if he flew on a dif­fer­ent air­line.

But af­ter watch­ing the “60 Min­utes” re­port, Bobes said he is strug­gling about whether to keep fly­ing Al­le­giant. He joked that he wants to see his son fin­ish law school.

“I hate fly­ing be­cause I’m a ner­vous flier, and this just made it worse,” said Bobes, 55. “I’m go­ing to write a let­ter to Al­le­giant and say that my at­trac­tion to Al­le­giant is not the cost. It is the air­ports that you are fly­ing into. So charge a lit­tle more and make your air­line safer. Peo­ple don’t mind pay­ing more for safety.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Al­le­giant spokes­woman Krysta Levy said the com­pany is phas­ing out its older twin-en­gine McDon­nell Dou­glas MD-80 planes — which re­quire more main­te­nance be­cause of their ages — with the new Air­bus A319 and A320. Com­pany of­fi­cials say Al­le­giant will re­move 37 MD-80s and re­place them with up to 40 new Air­bus planes by De­cem­ber.

Gus Am­bler, 67, of Or­lando, flies two or three times a year to Louisville, Ky., on Al­le­giant jets from the San­ford air­port. Al­though he did not see the “60 Min­utes” re­port, he has heard about the air­line’s en­gine and me­chan­i­cal prob­lems.

That’s why when he boards an Al­le­giant plane he’s re­lieved to learn it’s an A319 in­stead of a MD-80.

The re­port didn’t spook Camille Pier­ing, 70, of Or­lando, who of­ten flies on Al­le­giant to Fort Wayne, Ind., to visit her daugh­ter.

“Over­all, my feel­ings will not change,” she said. “I feel that with govern­ment reg­u­la­tions there is a level of safety that they have to meet.”

But Ju­dith DeNun­zio, of Beech Moun­tain, N.C., said it’s un­likely she will fly Al­le­giant again. She is now urg­ing her 35-year-old son in Fort Laud­erdale — who pur­chased Al­le­giant tick­ets to fly Thurs­day to North Carolina — to seek a re­fund and take a Delta flight in­stead.

“When you com­pare safety to the money,” she said, “I would rather pay more to fly with the big­ger air­lines.”

DAVID BECKER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Al­le­giant’s stock price Mon­day plum­meted 4.65 per­cent to $146.40 a share fol­low­ing a “60 Min­utes” in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ex­pressed se­ri­ous safety con­cerns about the air­line.

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