News report raises safety questions about Allegiant Air

Low-cost airline flies in and out of Jacksonville International Airport

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A news report has raised serious safety questions about an airline that flies in and out of the Jacksonville International Airport.

CBS News' "60 Minutes" reported Sunday night that between January 2016 and October 2017, the Las Vegas-based airline experienced more than 100 serious mechanical incidents, including aborted takeoffs, loss of cabin pressure, and emergency landings.

Allegiant, which buys used planes to keep costs down, offers flights connecting Jacksonville travelers to eight cities. Earlier this month, the airline announced new flights from Jacksonville to Louisville, Kentucky, and Norfolk, Virginia.

On Monday, Jacksonville travelers had mixed reaction about the CBS story. Some were alarmed, but others not so much.

News4Jax's aviation expert said people should be paying attention, even though the company claims its planes are safe and reliable.

Picking an airline could make the difference between an easy flight and a stressful one. Sometimes, flyers have to choose between cost and comfort.

"Buyers always have to be aware," traveler Erv Basdon said. "(If it seems) too good to be true, you have to investigate it."

Allegiant Air, which offers budget flights to and from Jacksonville for as low as $38 each way, has mixed reviews.

"I just heard my friends say they are always late, and people don't treat them right on the plane," traveler Abigail Vega said.

But Zachary Gaul said he had a good experience flying Allegiant.

"It was really simple," Gaul said. "The airport that they went to was close to home."

According to the monthslong investigation released by CBS News' "60 Minutes," detailed reports from the Federal Aviation Administration indicated that Allegiant flights were three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer an in-flight breakdown than flights operated by American, United, Delta, JetBlue or Spirit. The report also aired a long-running accusation by the Teamsters union local representing Allegiant pilots that the airline discourages pilots from reporting mechanical problems with planes.

Allegiant issued a statement by Capt. Eric Gust, vice president of operations, charging that the CBS story told a "false narrative" about Allegiant and the FAA. He said the airline complies with all FAA requirements and takes part in many voluntary safety programs and is subject to "rigorous oversight" by the FAA.

"My reaction to the show is anger that the public is being subjected to some known dangers. No one seems to be interested in doing anything about it," Gust said.

READ: Alliegant's response to "60 Minutes" story | Letter from Allegiant pilot | Allegiant fact sheet

News4Jax aviation analyst Ed Booth, who's a veteran pilot and aviation attorney, was alarmed hearing stories on engine failures and smoke in the cabin.

"The biggest danger to a pilot in an airplane and passengers is fire in flight," he said. "It is something that is terrifying to pilots and passengers."

Booth said the low-cost carrier uses a fleet of older planes, which are bought from overseas, and crew members don’t always seem to have passenger safety as their first priority.

When asked whether he or his family members would fly Allegiant, Booth said, "Not right now. Not with what I know now."

One example "60 Minutes" used was a plane filled with toxic smoke, where flight attendants didn't let passengers leave. Booth offered some advice.

"If you're in the airliner, it is landed and is filling up with smoke, I would not wait for the flight crew to tell you to evacuate," he said. "I think you have to be proactive."

Allegiant buys used planes to keep costs down. As of Feb. 2, Allegiant operated 37 McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 planes and 53 Airbus A320 jets. It is phasing out the MD-80s, which burn far more fuel than new planes. Allegiant's used planes range between 11 and 32 years old, according to a company regulatory filing.

Allegiant Air told News4Jax it is doing away with aging planes, which Delta and American Airlines use, as well. Allegiant said, by the end of 2018, it will be using newer Airbus models for the millions of passengers that fly ever year.  

The CBS report updated reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, which said in 2015 that Allegiant planes were four more times than those of other U.S. airlines to make an unplanned landing because of mechanical problems. None of those incidents led to enforcement action from the FAA.

The FAA on Monday released a letter in which associate administrator of safety Ali Bahrami defended the agency's performance by pointing to the lack of a fatal crash involving a U.S. airline since 2009.

The FAA increased its monitoring of Allegiant in 2015 because of labor tension with its pilots. In 2016, the agency moved up a routine review of the airline by two years after a series of aborted takeoffs and other safety incidents. FAA officials took no enforcement action against Allegiant and said they were satisfied that the airline was addressing problems found by inspectors.

Allegiant executives termed the FAA's 2016 findings "minor" and hailed the report as evidence of the airline's safety.

After the CBS report aired Sunday evening, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called for an investigation into the FAA's handling of safety-related incidents involving Allegiant Air. 

In a letter sent Monday to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the FAA’s potential lack of oversight warrants scrutiny.

READ: Nelson’s letter to DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III 

“The traveling public deserves to know whether the FAA is conducting thorough safety oversight of Allegiant,” Nelson wrote.  “Anything less could lead to disastrous consequences.”

News4Jax has reported on Allegiant incident in Jacksonville for years, including problems such as canceled and delayed flights in which passengers had to sit on the plane on the tarmac for hours. There have also been multiple emergency landings at Jacksonville International Airport.

But according to company leaders, Allegiant Air is safe and reliable, and has the second-least canceled flights of any American carrier. 

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.