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Allegiant Air defends safety record amid emergency landings, cancellations

Allegiant Air is defending its safety record after a series of emergency landings and cancellations at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
Allegiant Air is defending its safety record after a series of emergency landings and cancellations at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
Published Dec. 16, 2015

At the height of its travel season, Allegiant Air finds itself with a challenging public relations problem.

Recent headlines described two emergency landings at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in June; a series of flight cancellations there and at other airports that left hundreds of passengers temporarily stranded; and a labor dispute with a pilots union alleging Allegiant puts profits above safety.

Facing one of its most difficult years since the budget airline's 1997 founding, Allegiant officials last week moved to counter the perception that its fleet of 70 planes — one of the oldest among U.S. carriers — is plagued by maintenance issues. A spokeswoman said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that the airline has one of the industry's best safety records and that recent headlines amount to little more than bad luck.

"So while we can appreciate that there have been some incidents that have been quite public" at St. Pete-Clearwater, "we stand by the fact that our flights are safe and that the safety of our passengers and crews are our No. 1 priority," said Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler.

The airline said more than a dozen flight cancellations at St. Pete-Clearwater since the emergency landings have nothing to do with serious maintenance or safety issues, noting the airline is at the height of its busy travel season.

Wheeler said the airline has a small fleet, and when planes are taken out of service after emergency landings, cancellations result.

"Ultimately, we're not going to fly an airplane that's not ready to fly," she said.

Allegiant has never experienced an airline fatality. And airline safety in the United States has never been better, according to aviation experts.

John Cox, a St. Petersburg resident who is a former U.S. Airways pilot and a former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association, said U.S. airlines carried 3.5 billion passengers in 2014 on 40 million flights, with just 12 accidents resulting in fatalities, only two of which were on jets.

"We're flying almost half the planet's population every year, and we have two jets that had fatal accidents in 40 million flights," Cox said. "It's the safest transportation system ever designed by mankind. You are far more likely to be killed by a cow. You are far more likely to be killed by a dog. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning."

Cox noted airlines can fly older planes safely with additional maintenance, and U.S. air carriers face the world's strongest maintenance regimen via the Federal Aviation Administration. "Older, in and of itself, doesn't mean they're less safe," he said.

Allegiant has followed a formula that has made it one of the most profitable U.S. airlines, with a profit margin in 2014 of 14 percent, according to the New York Times. That was exceeded only by Spirit Airlines' 18 percent margin. By contrast, the industry's average was under 4 percent.

The Las Vegas-headquartered airlines saves cash by buying older jets and flying between cities that are overlooked by the larger airlines, such as Newburgh, N.Y., or Allentown, Pa.

Allegiant is engaged in a labor fight this year with its pilots, who voted to unionize two years ago. They contend that the airline has reduced their benefits, but a federal appeals court earlier this year blocked the pilots' efforts to strike.

The FAA put the airline under additional "surveillance" during these labor problems, and Allegiant officials said extra scrutiny did not uncover any problems with the way the airline maintained its aircraft.

This could not be confirmed with the FAA, though the agency said as of last week, Allegiant was in compliance with regulatory requirements.

A report in April released by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Aviation Mechanics Coalition — the Teamsters also represent pilots — detailed 65 incidents from September to March in which mechanical problems caused Allegiant aircraft to divert, return to the gate or abort takeoffs. Nine of those incidents involved aircraft at St. Pete-Clearwater.

Allegiant officials said the report was simply a union tactic to force the airline to make labor concessions, saying in a statement that it was "an effort to manipulate the public by raising concerns about the safety of our operations."

Russ Leighton, a Teamsters aviation safety coordinator who is a pilot but does not fly for Allegiant, said he believes Allegiant has experienced an abnormally high number of maintenance issues in the past year. He said Allegiant pilots believe the airline is not providing them with complete information about maintenance problems.

"What is going on at Allegiant sticks out like a sore thumb," Leighton said.

But Wheeler said the union is posturing.

"Neither ourselves nor the FAA have found any trends that show us there is any cause for concern," she said. "No doubt if the FAA had any concerns, they would take action."

Rabbi Levi Hodakov of St. Petersburg said he does not think he will fly Allegiant again soon after his flight out of St. Pete-Clearwater to Newburgh was diverted last weekend due to bad weather.

News reports, he said, make him nervous.

"Maybe things are getting blown out of proportion and the pilots are trying to give the airline a bad name," Hodakov said. "It would not shock me. … But I don't intend on flying them again soon, even at the expense of paying a few extra bucks" to fly on another airline. "Right or wrong, I am only being human."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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