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Trigaux: Allegiant Air keeps adding bay area flights amid troubles

For now, at least, the sky's the limit for St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and the single airline that keeps driving its business up: discount carrier Allegiant Air.

A day after the airport announced July as its third month in a row of record-breaking passenger traffic this summer, Allegiant on Tuesday unveiled three more flights to new destinations from the St. Pete-Clearwater airport

Allegiant said it would start flying year-round, nonstop service to Appleton, Wis., Kansas City, Mo., and Scranton, Pa., starting in November. The three new destinations, scheduled to operate as twice weekly flights, bring to 47 the number of cities serviced directly by Allegiant from St. Pete-Clearwater. Allegiant already said it would fly nonstop to Memphis starting Oct. 1 and recently added flights to Tulsa, Okla.; Akron, Ohio; and Durham, N.C.

Allegiant also announced 14 additional direct flights to new destinations serving other airports where it is the dominant or a significant carrier. They include three other Florida airports — Orlando Sanford International, Punta Gorda Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International — as well as McCarran International in Las Vegas, where Allegiant is based.

St. Pete-Clearwater International already has handled more than 1 million passengers, a record, so far this year, driven by Allegiant's growth and appears well on its way to an all-time high for 2015.

But the airport is largely beholden to the single airline, which now supplies 95 percent of its passenger business. And Allegiant continues to generate safety concerns sparked by four emergency landings that happened while leaving St. Pete-Clearwater this summer, and other incidents across the country.

Allegiant currently faces a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into the July 23 emergency landing of one of its planes flown by two company executives carrying 150 passengers in Fargo, N.D., after telling air traffic controllers the plane was low on fuel. The plane was scheduled to land at Fargo airport, but the flight arrived during a time the airport was closed because it was being used by the Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic jets.

Allegiant said its dispatchers released the flight to Fargo because the FAA notice made it seem like the airport would remain open for passenger airlines, noting that other airlines made the same mistake. The company said the plane's captain "exercised sound judgment" in choosing to land at Fargo instead of landing at the airport in Grand Forks. Allegiant, which is negotiating a contract with its pilots union, said assertions by the union that the company is cutting corners on safety to save money are "completely unfounded."

The Wall Street Journal asked three crisis experts to evaluate Allegiant's actions in this event and reported their feedback this week. One expert, Andrew Hennigan, questioned Allegiant's assertion that there were 42 minutes of reserve fuel available after landing because it appears to contradict the pilot's radio call — all captured and made public earlier — to the Fargo tower.

"Combined with earlier incidents the issue continues to undermine Allegiant's reputation," Hennigan said.

Consultant Jonathan Bernstein told the Journal: "When an airline has had a reported 65 maintenance-related incidents in (the September to March period), it has to do more than issue a generic statement — even if it was a pretty good generic statement.

"Airline incidents involving delays, luggage mishaps or poor customer service merely create annoyance," he said. "Safety-related incidents such as running low on fuel coming into Fargo, or others as alleged by the pilots' union, create fear."

Another crisis expert, global communications president Scott Farrell at the public relations firm GolinHarris, warned that Allegiant may have overstepped its bounds by issuing a statement that the FAA had not found fault with its pilots even as the FAA said it had not concluded its investigation. "My experience is that speaking for a government agency or pre-empting an agency's findings can have serious repercussions down the road," Farrell said.

So far, Allegiant has managed to downplay these series of flight problems. Wall Street analysts remain for the most part delighted with the airline's aggressive growth and continue to give the parent company, Allegiant Travel, an investors' thumbs up. Allegiant shares continue to sizzle, rising since the start of this year from just over $150 to a penny short of $227 by Tuesday's close.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @VentureTampaBay on Twitter.

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