60 Minutes’ Allegiant investigation: What’s new and what isn’t

Reporter Nathaniel Lash spent a year in 2016 investigating the Federal Aviation Administration and Allegiant Air’s safety record. Here’s his take on Sunday night’s CBS expose on the budget airline.
Allegiant is the dominant airline at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Allegiant is the dominant airline at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 16, 2018|Updated April 16, 2018

Sunday night, CBS’ 60 Minutes ran a seven-month investigation into Allegiant Air’s safety record, a topic that Times reporters have been covering extensively over the last three years.

The story wasn’t produced in partnership with the Times, but it was built heavily on our reporting about the upstart airline. CBS correspondents followed up with some new facts and figures, and nailed a revealing interview with a Federal Aviation Administration official.

[ Read our investigation: Breakdown at 30,000 feet ]

[ Watch the whole 60 Minutes story ]

Here’s what you missed, and how it fits into the reporting you’ve been reading in the Times since 2015:

Allegiant still has a high rate of in-flight mechanical failures.

60 Minutes said it was able to obtain records from the FAA through Freedom of Information Act requests for a handful of airlines, but Allegiant tried to block the release of records about their incidents. After a tense on-camera interview with an FAA official, the agency finally coughed up the records for Allegiant, which CBS says showed the airline had a rate of mid-air breakdowns at 3.5 times the rate of American, United, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit.

CBS did not say the specific time period these records cover. But it appears CBS used a similar methodology as the Times did in our 2016 investigation, which found that Allegiant had 4 times as many mid-air breakdowns as the other 10 largest U.S. carriers from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec 31, 2015. Logs of FOIA requests sent to the FAA last year indicate that a 60 Minutes producer asked for records covering the period from Aug. 2, 2016 to Aug. 4, 2017.

Allegiant is phasing out its oldest planes, and it seems to be helping.

When Times reporters investigated the airline in 2016, the majority of Allegiant’s fleet were gas-guzzling MD-80s, with an average age of 27 years. When reporters sat down with Allegiant’s executives, they said they would accelerate plans to phase out the aging model. Today, the MD-80 makes up less than a third of their fleet.

CBS noted a dip in Allegiant’s rates of problems submitted to the FAA’s public “Service Difficulty Reports” database, which the show attributed in part to Allegiant phasing out its oldest, most problematic aircraft.

The SDR database, however, is largely self-reported and loosely enforced by the FAA, something that Allegiant pointed out to the Washington Post when it ran a story that relied on rates derived from that data.

The pilot’s union still has safety concerns.

Daniel Wells, president of the Teamsters branch that represents the pilots of Allegiant and nine other airlines, told CBS that pilots weren’t allowed to speak publicly about their safety concerns, for fear of termination:

The pilot’s union been a sore spot for Allegiant for years, with a long, bitter contract dispute that finally resolved in July 2016. During the negotiations, the company accused the union of “trying everything they can do to make us look bad,“ as one executive put it.

It seems that the friction between management and the union persists: Wells told CBS that some pilots are concerned that calls from maintenance operators are meant to discourage Allegiant pilots from reporting problems with their aircraft.

The FAA still doesn’t like to talk about safety.

When Times reporters approached the FAA about Allegiant Air, officials refused to sit down for an interview, demanding written questions and responding with boilerplate statements.

But 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft got John Duncan, the FAA’s head of Flight Standards, to face the cameras, peppering him with questions about how the FAA was addressing incidents with Allegiant’s fleet.

The cut CBS aired doesn’t exactly show Duncan opening up about the specific ways the FAA keeps air travel safe, however. Consider this exchange, prompted by records obtained by the Times that showed the FAA ignoring an inspector’s recommendations after a near-crash:

Allegiant called 60 Minutes’ reporting “unoriginal and outdated.”

CBS said Allegiant wouldn’t come to the table for an interview, but the company released a statement as soon as the segment aired. This is an excerpt from Eric Gust, their VP of Operations:

By “comprehensive audit,” Gust is likely referring to the 2016 review of Allegiant’s FAA certificate. Allegiant told the Times after the review that the results gave the airline a clean bill of health. Nevertheless, CBS came up with over a hundred reports of serious mechanical problems in Allegiant’s fleet since then.

Investigative reporting on U.S. aviation is still hard.

This was the biggest surprise for Times reporters, who have been thankful to cover something other than aviation safety after spending the better part of a year trying to obtain records from the FAA.

60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft elaborated in a behind-the-scenes interview:

Us too, Steve. Us too.

Read our investigative reporting on Allegiant.

Thousands of people flew Allegiant last year thinking their planes wouldn’t fail in the air. They were wrong. [Nov. 2, 2016]

The FAA could have cracked down on Allegiant Air. It didn’t. [Dec. 16, 2016]

At Allegiant, a board and business model with roots in ValuJet[Dec. 21, 2016]

Allegiant changes course after Times investigation, admits too many planes failed [Nov. 2, 2016]

An FAA investigation warned of ‘potential tragedies.’ Officials hid it from the public [May 12, 2017]