Thursday, January 28, 2016

Note to Allegiant: Emergency Landings Are Not the Problem

Recently a friend asked me what airlines were the safest to fly. I get asked that question all the time. I find the question challenging in part because of the chasm between risk and perceived risk. 

For example, most air travelers will admit to some anxiety about the safety of their flight, but few worry much about the taxi in which they are speeding to the airport. Travelers are also treated to end-of-the-year news reports about the world’s most dangerous airlines based on fatalities. That’s a false relationship as I’ve reported before.

Sometimes, however, it is obvious what airlines to avoid. I was reminded of that today when I read the latest in the ongoing saga of America’s low cost carrier Allegiant. According to William Levesque in the Tampa Bay Times, a group of investors in the airline are calling for Allegiant to create a special safety committee after a number of emergency landings and maintenance problems that have plagued the airline.

Evacuation photo from passenger Bryan Dougherty
Let’s be clear, emergency landings are not the problem, they are a symptom. One does not want airlines to put pressure on pilots to avoid them. That seems to have happened in the case of Capt. Jason Kinzer, who was fired by Allegiant after an emergency landing at St. Pete Clearwater International Airport in June 2015.

Kinzer had smoke in the cabin and a report from the airport fire department of smoke from the engine that did not dissipate in the cabin even after the engine was shut down. He opted to evacuate the 141 people on board the MD-80 via the door slides and in the process two people were injured.

According to an interview and copy of the termination letter Capt. Kinzer gave to ABC News, Allegiant found the evacuation unwarranted and said that he failed to preserve the company assets. Emergency evacuations can be expensive. The public relations hit is equally costly.

Fargo had a TFR for Blue Angels show rehearsal
One month later, the crew on Allegiant Flight 426 declared a fuel emergency while trying to land at Fargo’s Hector International Airport after a flying from its home airport in Las Vegas. The Fargo runway was temporarily closed for a Blue Angel air show rehearsal, something Allegiant and every other operator had been informed of for months.

In his story, Levesque reported it as the “strangest in a string of emergency landings” but it got even more bizarre when news broke that the pilots in command of the flight were Allegiant’s vice president of operations and its director of flight safety.

An unidentified Allegiant pilot told the Las Vegas Review’s, Richard Velotta, that one of the two management pilots had been an advocate for flights “operating with minimal fuel reserves.”

An Allegiant 757 in Honolulu
I’m no advocate of pilot bashing. Surely many things played a role in Flight 426 from its fuel load to its delay on departure to the lack of knowledge of the temporary flight restriction by the pilots or the dispatch office.

Last summer, while all this news was breaking, I received a call from a mechanic who had observed an engine replacement on an Allegiant airplane that had been stranded at a remote airport after the engine failed on takeoff. The replacement was tagged as inspected, and was ostensibly ready to be put on the MD-80 but when he saw it, my contact was flabbergasted by its condition.

“It looked as if it had been sitting in a field,” he said. When mechanics began the work, major parts were missing. “Everything about that engine change was just sketchy,” my source told me. “I completely appreciate that different companies do things different ways and level of quality is not always going to be synchronous, but it was a shit show.”

By all those surveys that rank airline safety by number of fatalities, Allegiant looks good. Since its start in 1998, it has not had a fatal accident.

But the markers for disaster are not to be found in accidents so much as in incidents and in the way an airline handles them. Are pilots second-guessed? Are safety margins squeezed? Is getting by considered good enough?

When the answers to those questions are yes, my friend, buy a ticket on other airline. 

Note: A reader of my blog reminds me of this story which appeared in the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, also written by reporter William Levesque. 
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