they were wrong....
BREAKDOWN AT 30,000 FEET
Nov. 2, 2016
By NATHANIEL LASH, WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE and ANTHONY CORMIER
Times Staff Writers
Lisa Cozzolino started to panic as Allegiant Air Flight 844 circled over Pinellas County, burning off fuel for an emergency landing. “All the bad things I’ve done in my life,” she said to her sister, “and now I’m going to die.” Matt Jones fumbled with his cellphone, trying to call his wife to say goodbye, as crew members on Allegiant Flight 822 ordered him to tuck into crash position over Baltimore. “I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to see my wife or my kids or my grandkids again,’” he recalled.
Jessica Stoffel was so afraid on Allegiant Flight 175 over Mesa, Ariz., that she grabbed the stranger next to her and squeezed his hand. “I was terrified and honestly did not think we were going to make it,” she said.
“Now I’m going to die.”
FlightAware’s flight tracker shows Lisa Cozzolino’s flight, Allegiant Flight 844, circling the gulf and then returning for an unscheduled landing after taking off in June from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.All major airlines break down once in awhile. But none of them break down in midair more often than Allegiant.
A Tampa Bay Times
investigation — which included a first-of-its kind analysis of federal aviation records — has found that the budget carrier’s planes are four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines.
In 2015, Allegiant jets were forced to make unexpected landings at least 77 times for serious mechanical failures.
Cozzolino’s flight was interrupted by a leaky hydraulic system. Jones was on a plane with failing brakes. The engine on Stoffel’s plane caught fire during an aborted landing, and the jet dipped suddenly to one side. Its wing nearly touched the ground.
None of the 77 incidents prompted enforcement action from the Federal Aviation Administration, which doesn’t compare airline breakdown records to look for warning signs.
To create such a comparison, Times
reporters built a database of more than 65,000 records from the FAA. Working through the data, they connected a year’s worth of flight records with documents showing mechanical problems at the 11 largest domestic carriers in the United States, including Allegiant. They interviewed 20 aviation experts, including former federal safety inspectors, aircraft engineers and mechanics.
Then they traveled to Las Vegas and met with Allegiant executives for a series of interviews. The airline did not dispute the newspaper’s findings, which included:
- Forty-two of Allegiant’s 86 planes broke down in mid-flight at least once in 2015. Among them were 15 forced to land by failing engines, nine by overheating tail compartments and six by smoke or the smell of something burning.
- After certain systems on Allegiant planes fail, the company repairs them and puts the planes back in service, only to see the same systems fail again. Eighteen times last year, key parts such as engines, sensors and electronics failed once in flight, got checked out, and then failed again, causing another unexpected landing.
- Allegiant’s jets are, on average, 22 years old. The average age of planes flown by other carriers is 12. Experts say planes as old as Allegiant’s require the most rigorous maintenance in the industry. But Allegiant doesn’t staff its own mechanics at 107 of the 118 airports it flies to.
- Allegiant relies most heavily on McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, an aging model retired by all but two other major U.S. carriers. The company’s MD-80s fail twice as often as those operated by American Airlines and three times as often as those flown by Delta.
Allegiant’s troubles have not gone unnoticed. A string of emergency landings in recent years prompted websites, TV stations and newspapers, including the Times,
to ask questions about the company’s safety record. Time and again, top executives downplayed concerns and said the airline was no different than others. Amid the increased scrutiny, the FAA in April launched a three-month review of Allegiant’s maintenance, training and operations programs. The agency found problems with Allegiant’s maintenance paperwork, including a failure to report a mid-flight engine shutdown within a required time frame. But the FAA said nothing it discovered was severe enough to require a fine or other serious enforcement action.
Instead, the agency required Allegiant to file a plan for addressing the FAA’s findings. The airline submitted it in September, and the FAA accepted it — essentially giving Allegiant a clean bill of health. “We were always a safe airline,” Allegiant’s chief operating officer Jude Bricker told the Associated Press on Sept. 30. “This gives credence to our claim.”
What failed in flight
These parts and systems have forced Allegiant’s planes to land unexpectedly the most between January 2015 and September 2016.
Cockpit instruments 6 times
Cabin pressure 9 times
Engines 39 times
Nose landing gear 7 times
Tail compartment 26 times
Source: Times analysis of records from U.S. DOT and FlightAware
ELI ZHANG, NATHANIEL LASH TimesPlenty of people are rooting for Allegiant, including travelers who chafe at paying high airfares and officials in the out-of-the-way towns and smaller airports that Allegiant serves. Among them is St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, where the airline accounts for about 95 percent of annual passenger traffic.
But industry observers say there’s a reason most air travel is so expensive. It’s difficult both to offer great deals and spend the money needed for a reliable fleet.
When the Times
first reached out to Allegiant officials for this story, they declined to speak with reporters. Then, after the newspaper presented them with its findings, they asked for a meeting. During five hours of interviews at the company’s Las Vegas headquarters and training center, they acknowledged their planes break down too often and said the airline is changing the way it operates.
“I can’t sit here and say that you’re wrong,” Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said. “We’re very much focused on running a better operation.”