In a stunning and comprehensive report, the Tampa Bay Times has uncovered systemic mechanical problems on Allegiant Air’s planes.
The Times states that its 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.”
Here are some of the key findings uncovered by the Times, which were not disputed by the airline:
- “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.”
- “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 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.”
According to the Times, Allegiant officials initially declined to comment on the story, and in fact had remained mostly silent as anecdotal evidence of the airline’s woeful safety record accumulated. But when the Times presented Allegiant with its findings, they agreed to talk and, ultimately, acknowledged that change is needed.
“I can’t sit here and say that you’re wrong,” Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. told the Times. “We’re very much focused on running a better operation.”
As a matter of comparison, the average U.S. airline experiences about three unexpected landings due to mechanical issues per 10,000 flights. Most major airlines, such as JetBlue, United, and Delta, come in around that number. Southwest experiences the fewest, with just 1.2, while American has the second-most with 5.1.
And Allegiant? Twelve. Twelve. More than double American, and four times as much as the industry average.
So what on earth is wrong at Allegiant? As is often the case, there are several factors: Old planes, deteriorating or sometimes knowingly broken parts, parts remaining in use past their useful life, generally insufficient or “superficial” maintenance practices, and possibly the fact that Allegiant doesn’t staff its own mechanics at 107 of the 118 airports it serves.
So basically … everything.
Allegiant officials told the Times its operations were “stressed” by years of rapid growth. “Now we’ve gotten to a point where, hey, we need to take a step back, slow down growth, let’s standardize the fleet, and then we can get reliability where we want it to be,” Jude Bricker, the chief operating officer, told the Times. “We’re moving really as rapidly as we can.” This summer, the airline announced plans to buy new planes for the first time ever.
There’s another side to this story too, which is that the FAA’s policy for this seems … lacking:
“Carriers have to file monthly ‘mechanical interruption summary reports’ — logs of failures that cause delays, diversions or cancellations.
“But the federal government doesn’t regularly check these documents for accuracy or completion, and it leaves it up to airlines to store them.
“As a matter of policy, the FAA also doesn’t compare airlines’ records to search for warning signs. Agency officials said one airline is so different from the next, in the types of planes it flies and the way it flies them, that such a comparison wouldn’t be useful.
“Instead, FAA inspectors examine each airline independent of the others.
“It’s a policy that has continued even though a majority of the FAA’s own inspectors say it should be changed. According to a 2013 report, three in four inspectors surveyed by the U.S. Department of Transportation said comparing airlines would make air travel safer.”
The full report is worth a read, so please take the time. (As an aside, it’s outstanding journalism regardless of subject matter.) Allegiant’s apparent disregard for the safety of its passengers and its willingness to cut corners on safety is breathtaking in its audacity, and the first-person accounts of harrowing emergency landings are chilling.
Readers, have you ever flown Allegiant? What was your experience like?