Have you questioned flying Southwest since its deadly engine failure made headlines this spring? The incident might have overshadowed a watershed safety moment for another low-cost airline—one that’s long faced questions about its safety: Allegiant Air.
A recent 60 Minutes special rekindled questions around Allegiant’s incident record, following a 2016 report that found Allegiant’s aircraft were four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines. 60 Minutes did a deep dive on the airline’s safety record since then, and found little has changed.
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Is Allegiant Air Safe?
The crux of 60 Minutes’ findings is this:
For the past seven months, we have been scrutinizing ‘service difficulty reports’ filed by Allegiant with the FAA. They are official, self-reported records of problems experienced by their aircraft. What we found raised some disturbing questions about the performance of their fleet. Between January 1st, 2016 and the end of last October, we found more than 100 serious mechanical incidents, including mid-air engine failures, smoke and fumes in the cabin, rapid descents, flight control malfunctions, hydraulic leaks and aborted takeoffs.
The airline has had “persistent problems since at least the summer of 2015,” the report adds, “when it experienced a rash of mid-air breakdowns, including five on a single day.”
A Pattern of Problems
What makes the Allegiant situation more notable, however, is that we aren’t talking about a short period of time. As 60 Minutes notes, the carrier has had persistent, consistent safety and maintenance difficulties for years.
All airlines experience occasional, isolated mechanical issues. Sometimes even a spate of problems in a row—Southwest, for example, had a rough stretch this spring with multiple, newsworthy incidents over a short period of time. The Tampa Bay Times’ bombshell reporting on Allegiant’s maintenance record, though, came out in November 2016, and we’re still talking about what appear to be systemic problems.
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Just this week, an Allegiant Air flight made an emergency landing due to smoke in the cabin. This followed another emergency landing in May due to an “electrical smell.” And that followed another in April due to a faulty sensor. And there was yet another in April.
In a statement to 60 Minutes, Allegiant’s Vice President of Operations, Captain Eric Gust, said: “All of us at Allegiant are proud of our strong safety record, as noted in the most current, comprehensive FAA audit. We not only comply with all mandatory safety regulations and guidelines, but also participate in numerous voluntary safety programs. Simply stated, safety is at the forefront of our minds and the core of our operations.”
It’s worth noting that this response differs from Allegiant’s in 2016, when Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said the company would be “focused on running a better operation.”
Out with the Old
60 Minutes suggests these problems are the result of the way Allegiant runs its business: “The business strategy which has produced 60 straight quarters of profits, occasionally with margins approaching 30 percent, requires the airline to keep costs down and ‘push the metal’—keep the planes flying as often as possible,” the report says. “But Allegiant’s aged fleet of MD-80s, which it is phasing out and is responsible for most of its problems, require a lot of maintenance and reliable parts are hard to come by.”
How old can an airline fleet be, really? MD-80s are rarely flown in the U.S. these days, and most airlines have retired them in favor of newer, modern aircraft. Allegiant is finally doing the same. The airline is transitioning to an all-Airbus fleet, and is steadily introducing those aircraft to its active roster. Its MD-80s should be fully retired by year’s end. That said, the most recent emergency landing, due to smoke in the cabin, involved … one of its new Airbus planes.
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Where’s the Oversight?
60 Minutes also points fingers at the FAA. “Over the last three years, the FAA has switched its priorities from actively enforcing safety rules with fines, warning letters and sanctions—which become part of the public record—to working quietly with the airlines behind the scenes to fix the problems,” the report says.
However, in a letter to CBS shared with Skift.com, the FAA pushed back on suggestions of lax oversight, saying Allegiant received more attention than other carriers, and that the FAA accelerated a review of the airline’s procedures.
“This review did not find any systematic safety or regulatory problems, but did identify a number of less serious issues, which Allegiant addressed,” according to the letter. The agency says it has found no “significant or systematic problem” in evaluations following that review.
Unsafe, or Just Unreliable?
Amidst all this back and forth, one simple, common truth emerges: At best, Allegiant is simply far less reliable than other airlines. “Perhaps the piece was sensational,” Brian Sumers wrote for Skift, “but it did tell the public what insiders have long known—Allegiant is less reliable than U.S. major carriers.”
There’s a subtle but crucial distinction to be made here between “unreliable” and “unsafe.” For all the incidents Allegiant has encountered, it seems to take the issue seriously and is moving to modernize its fleet with more reliable aircraft. And so far, thankfully, those incidents have been relatively minor—at least in outcome, if not experience for the passengers onboard.
But a new aircraft fleet and all those statements of good intent won’t matter at all if these issues continue, or get worse.
Readers, do you fly Allegiant? Have you ever encountered a problem onboard? Comment below.