Allegiant Air changes course after Times investigation, admits too many planes failed

Allegiant Air Chief Operating Officer Jude Bricker, left, listens to Chairman and CEO Maury Gallagher, right, answer questions posed by Times reporters at the airline's Las Vegas headquarters on Oct. 26. Both admit Allegiant has had too many mechanical failures, but say the airline is improving. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times
Allegiant Air Chief Operating Officer Jude Bricker, left, listens to Chairman and CEO Maury Gallagher, right, answer questions posed by Times reporters at the airline's Las Vegas headquarters on Oct. 26. Both admit Allegiant has had too many mechanical failures, but say the airline is improving. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published November 2 2016
Updated November 4 2016

LAS VEGAS — Allegiant Air leaders who once battled any suggestion the carrier's rate of emergency landings and other aircraft mishaps were unusually high are now taking a sharply different tack.

They're offering something of a mea culpa.

The airline offered no pushback late last month when presented with a Tampa Bay Times' analysis showing the carrier, in 2015, was four times as likely to suffer unscheduled landings due to mechanical problems as other major U.S. carriers.

"I can look at what we did (in 2015) and it wasn't acceptable," Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said in an Oct. 26 interview at the company's Las Vegas headquarters. "I don't disagree with the thrust of your numbers. … We want to be well-known as being reliable and on time, and obviously safe, and that's an important part of our brand. And we're going to make sure we do those things. But if you stub your toe, step up and own it and move on."

READ OUR INVESTIGATION: Thousands of people flew Allegiant last year thinking their planes wouldn't fail in the air. They were wrong.

More openness by Allegiant may be particularly striking given the industry's general abhorrence to discuss maintenance practices and emergencies.

"Well, you have to appreciate, you're breaking pretty new ground here with this stuff," Gallagher told the Times. "This industry historically has not talked about safety. There's no upside to going out and talking about it."

Throughout 2015, Allegiant was quick to blame its pilots union and the media for overhyping its rate of emergency landings, arguing that Allegiant had been unfairly scrutinized for routine events.

Gallagher, for example, told the Times in January that its stories about the budget airline were filled with "baseless assumptions and accusations." One story, he said, "repeats the faulty premise that something is wrong with Allegiant. Let me be clear: There is not."

But in interviews with the Times last month, Gallagher and other Allegiant leaders went further than ever in acknowledging the airline's planes have suffered too many in-flight breakdowns.

That shift in tone includes Gallagher's acknowledgment that one of the fastest-growing airlines in the nation will be slowing some of its expansion. "We just need to be more conservative," Gallagher said.

In recent months, Allegiant has noted it needs to replace its fleet of aging MD-80 aircraft, which it said has proven far less reliable than it anticipated. To that end, the carrier is buying 12 new Airbus aircraft in the next two years, a departure from Allegiant's business model of buying used aircraft at bargain prices.

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Allegiant's stance in June and July 2015, when a series of emergency landings at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport first attracted notice, was that nothing was amiss at the airline.

"Neither ourselves nor the FAA have found any trends that show us there is any cause for concern," Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler told the Times in June 2015.

At the time, Allegiant officials even indicated the age of its MD-80 aircraft was a red herring for anyone trying to link the planes to emergency landings.

"Maintenance events are not tied to any specific location or to the age of an aircraft," the airline said in a written statement to the Times. "Most maintenance events are related not to the age of the aircraft, but rather to the number of takeoffs and landings (cycles) performed by an individual plane."

Today, Gallagher said Allegiant has made important strides in improving its performance. But Allegiant is careful not to equate a lack of reliability with its aircraft to a lack of safety.

Allegiant began discussing its operational problems more openly earlier this year. In April, Gallagher addressed a room full of state and local government officials at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater hotel and acknowledged the airline had experienced a "bad summer" in 2015.

"When you put people and machines together, there are going to be problems," Gallagher said at the time. "The issues you've read about in the paper are directly related to our own growth. We've since changed our management here (in Pinellas County). You won't see that experience again."

At about the same time, Allegiant chief operating officer Jude Bricker told Bloomberg News that the airline's efforts to improve aircraft reliability have led to a lower rate of service interruptions such as aborted takeoffs and emergency landings, from 2.81 per 1,000 flights in April 2015 to 1.37 in March.

"We're investing in everything we know to invest in," Bricker said. "Most of the indicators we watch are positive. Everything is moving in the right direction."

Certainly one lingering problem for Allegiant was fixed this summer when the airline's pilots union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, agreed to a work contract. Allegiant had bluntly accused the union throughout 2015 and early 2016 of feeding media hype about aircraft maintenance problems.

"The Teamsters are trying everything they can do to make us look bad," Allegiant's then-COO Steve Harfst told the Times in September 2015.

But Gallagher's latest comments indicate the carrier recognizes it bears some of the responsibility for that bruising publicity itself.

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