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April 13, 2016

Frequent Flying Flukes? Allegiant Air incidents can’t be ignored

by: Mary F. Schiavo

Allegiant has suffered a string of operational anomalies over the last year, which have captured the attention of the public and aviation industry professionals alike in many news articles, union reports, and consumer complaints.

As you may know, Allegiant was formed in 1997 by former ValuJet CEO Maurice Gallagher and other ValuJet executives. Tragically, 20 years ago this May, ValuJet Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades, killing 110, and soon thereafter ceased to exist.

A record of concerning incidents
Pilots don’t turn the plane around and go back to the airport unless something is seriously wrong on the flight. They have the authority to choose how to handle in-flight situations, and when a pilot decides to divert, it’s a sign that flight safety may be compromised. Thank you to the pilots who make the tough decisions to cancel a flight.

In the last year, multiple Allegiant flights returned to the airport or declared an emergency for the following reasons:

One incident prompted a rare, formal reprimand from the Federal Aviation Administration. In December 2015, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, the agency issued a Letter of Correction to Allegiant after it arrived for landing on July 23, 2015, at the Fargo, N.D. airport, which was closed for an upcoming air show. The FAA had announced the airport closing through its NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) system, which Allegiant clearly ignored. By the time the crew figured out the airport was closed, the plane was dangerously low on fuel.

Air Traffic Control directed the plane to another airport 45 minutes away, an impossibility, according to Allegiant’s pilot. When controllers suggested the airfield would be ready in 20 minutes, the pilot declared an emergency and landed, saying the plane would run out of fuel in three to four minutes.

Allegiant dispatchers and pilots should have been aware of the airport closure. Ironically, the pilots at the controls that day were two Allegiant executives, Greg Baden, Vice President of Flight Operations, and Michael Wuerger, Director of Flight Safety.

On Aug. 17, 2015, a problem arose during a rejected takeoff from McCarren Airport in Las Vegas. As the Allegiant MD-83 accelerated down the runway, pilots reportedly had trouble keeping the aircraft on the ground. When the aircraft reached 138 MPH, the crew aborted the takeoff.

The decision to abort may have saved the lives of everyone on board. A preliminary investigation found that a nut on a component that moves the left elevator had fallen off, causing the control surface to become jammed in the up position. This is the same critical failure which caused the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 88 on board.

Allegiant’s financials
Additionally, aspects of Allegiant’s financial record may also be of interest:

  • Allegiant boss, Chairman and CEO Maurice Gallagher took $25 million out of Allegiant in 2014 by selling his stock back to the company.
  • Allegiant gave a parting gift of $8.5 million to former President and COO Andrew Levy, and gave $2.5 million to fund Gallagher’s 25-year-old son’s racing team.
  • On March 11, 2016, Gallagher sold 292,000 shares of company stock, reaping $47.8 million.

Allegiant’s inconvenient truth
Allegiant’s business model is built on connecting smaller cities with popular vacation destinations – an enticing prospect, indeed. Due to its relatively small fleet size, however, Allegiant cannot quickly accommodate its passengers when mechanical difficulties arise.

On March 24, 2015, an Allegiant plane bound for Grand Rapids, Mich., took off from Orlando, but returned to the airport 30 minutes into the flight due to a sensor problem. Back on the ground, a second plane replaced the first, but could not take off due to a different mechanical issue. Finally, all passengers were boarded onto a third plane, which suffered another problem. Ultimately, passengers stayed overnight in a hotel, and weren’t able to fly to Michigan until the following morning.

Overall, Allegiant passengers report frequent, and sometimes lengthy delays. I hope Allegiant Air and airline passengers take these incidents seriously.