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Are maintenance problems at Allegiant Air the result of an airline growing too fast?

Published Mar. 20, 2016

David Stuckenberg has flown thousands of hours as an Air Force pilot and a passenger on commercial airliners. He said a flight on Allegiant Air last month was his worst flying experience ever.

The takeoff from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport aborted at high speed, announced by a loud boom from a failing engine. It took more than three hours for Allegiant to find a replacement plane. Airline employees provided little information to passengers, who did not know if they would take off again in five minutes or five hours. A 90-minute wait on a customer service phone line ended when an employee hung up on him.

"It was pretty apparent most of the staff is very inexperienced, and they just don't really know what they're doing," said Stuckenberg, 35, who lives in Tampa. "The customer service was atrocious. That was our last Allegiant flight."

Some airline safety advocates question whether Allegiant, a budget carrier that flew more than 1.4 million passengers at the Pinellas airport last year, is showing signs of stress caused by its rapid growth, possibly creating a dangerous situation in which it can't keep up with maintenance.

They draw a parallel between Allegiant and ValuJet, the upstart airline whose gaudy expansion troubled the Federal Aviation Administration in the months leading to the 1996 Everglades crash that killed 110 people.

Such comparisons may be particularly uncomfortable for Allegiant, whose CEO, Maurice Gallagher Jr., was ValuJet's co-founder.

"It appears Allegiant is following the same recipe for disaster ValuJet followed," said Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general who questioned ValuJet safety and wrote a book on aviation safety, Flying Blind, Flying Safe. "The airline is designed as a cash cow. The things that passengers are seeing are indicative of the overall condition of the airline. They're clues. And they're valued clues."

The last year has proven to be one of Allegiant's most challenging with a string of emergency landings, aborted takeoffs and delayed flights. In the last week of December alone, five Florida flights were forced to make unscheduled landings because of mechanical problems.

Allegiant executives would not comment for this story. They have steadfastly maintained their airline is among the safest and the company hasn't had a crash in nearly 20 years of operation. They have accused their pilots' union, with whom they are engaged in bitter contract negotiations, of using the media to drum up concern about the airline's safety.

Allegiant executives do acknowledge growing pains at an airline consistently ranked as one of the fastest expanding in the industry. Said chief operating officer Jude Bricker in January: "Operational challenges that we had over the last several months really had to do mainly with the growth that we were putting through our network.''

Rapid growth drives Allegiant's best-in-the-industry profit margins, leading Schiavo to conclude that for the airline, "It's all about fast money.''

• • •

Signs of Allegiant's rapid expansion and accompanying growing pains have been apparent for months.

• Allegiant's previous chief operating officer, Steve Harfst, abruptly resigned in January after little more than a year on the job. Allegiant said the leadership change would allow the airline to "refocus on operational needs and areas of improvement."

• Allegiant officials told financial analysts in January that operational problems have included a lag in training new pilots to keep up with expansion and the need to improve aircraft "reliability."

• Earlier this month, the airline said it was adding three new cities and 22 routes to its schedule, which it called one of the biggest announced expansions in its history. Allegiant had already grown from 195 routes in 2012 to 295 last year.

• The airline is dogged by complaints by passengers about delayed flights and customer service shortfalls. A 2015 survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Allegiant sixth for passenger satisfaction among nine U.S. airlines.

• An investment group with a stake in Allegiant in January urged the airline's board of directors to form a safety committee in light of emergency landings and because the airline flies older aircraft requiring more maintenance.

• The company has experienced a series of highly publicized maintenance problems that included at least 45 unscheduled landings in 2015 because of mechanical problems, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

But the FAA does not publish complete data on maintenance issues like emergency or unscheduled landings, so it can be exceedingly difficult to empirically demonstrate one airline is safer than any other. Allegiant has maintained all airlines suffer such mishaps.

But the agency in 2013 discovered problems with Allegiant's maintenance and employee training after a routine inspection. The FAA, the New York Times reported, temporarily closed training programs for pilots, flight attendants and mechanics and froze new plane deliveries until the problems were fixed.

Few details of those inspections were released by the FAA, though the problems were apparently eliminated as the airline is under no unusual FAA scrutiny today.

Though an Allegiant plane has never crashed, there was a close call last August. A plane's control surface, called an elevator, jammed during takeoff, but pilots successfully aborted at 138 mph. Had the plane become airborne, mechanics say, it could easily have crashed.

The FAA said the near miss was caused by a contractor hired by Allegiant, though the airline is still responsible under FAA rules to oversee their work.

Allegiant told the media an inspection of its fleet found no similar issues. But Bloomberg News reported maintenance logs it obtained found two other planes had unsecured elevator bolts and a third had an unsecured bolt on a critical part called an aileron, used to help the aircraft turn.

Allegiant's unique business model may compound some of its operational problems. The airline flies older planes that require much more maintenance than newer models. A majority of its roughly 80 aircraft are MD-80 series planes with an average age near 26 years. The airline flies to smaller airports not served by large commercial carriers.

Some argue many of those airports have private maintenance companies with mechanics with far less experience working on bigger aircraft.

Allegiant officials have said they pay attention to growth and will put the brakes on expansion, when necessary, until operational systems catch up. They note that Allegiant could grow far faster if not for the airline's caution about overstressing operations. The company's goal is to expand 10 to 15 percent each year.

"For us, 10 to 15 percent a year (is) the . . . right amount of growth," said Allegiant's then-vice president of network and pricing, Lukas Johnson, in a September Tampa Bay Times interview. "You're not growing to the point (that) it's straining the organization."

Allegiant officials, however, have indicated they are willing to push growth right up to the point of strain.

As Bricker, Allegiant's current COO, told financial analysts in October: "We're growing overall capacity as fast as we can operationally manage. . . . And capacity-wise, we're going to continue to push the outer limits of growth in the off-peak periods where we have surplus pilots and crews. And then when the operation becomes challenged, we're going to try to go easy on those periods."

Tampa Bay has been the beneficiary of Allegiant's expansion and is seen by business leaders as boosting regional tourism. Allegiant offers low-cost airfare to about 50 cities from St. Pete-Clearwater, about 95 percent of the airport's traffic.

Last year, Pinellas officials said they would spend $1 million on a digital and TV campaign in 10 cities served by Allegiant, from Iowa to West Virginia, to entice visitors to the region.

• • •

ValuJet is often viewed as the poster child for rapid expansion gone awry.

After the Atlanta-based carrier was created in 1993, it became the darling of Wall Street with robust profits fed by dizzying growth. In its first two years, ValuJet expanded from two to 48 planes.

The FAA soon became concerned by a mounting litany of maintenance problems and emergency landings by the airline. In February 1996, the agency told ValuJet it must receive FAA permission before adding any new aircraft or cities to its network. The agency rejected a staff recommendation that ValuJet be grounded.

On the afternoon of May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 caught fire minutes after departing Miami for Atlanta and crashed into the Everglades. All 110 people onboard died.

The National Transportation Safety Board said ValuJet had improperly supervised a maintenance contractor it hired whose personnel improperly loaded hazardous oxygen canisters into a cargo hold. One is believed to have triggered the fire.

Aviation mechanic John Goglia was the NTSB investigator who served as the hearing officer in the ValuJet crash. He said he viewed the airline's rapid growth, and the FAA's inability to police that growth, as a major contributing factor in the crash.

He said airlines that expand rapidly experience one primary stress — maintaining adequate personnel.

"The operation expands faster than the people who manage the operations," he said. "So they reach a saturation point, and they cannot manage the growth. They cannot do their jobs. They focus more and more on the operational problems and less and less on safety oversight."

Retired aviation mechanic John King, who has spent several years tracking maintenance issues based on reports to the FAA, said airlines like Allegiant that grow quickly often struggle to grow systems and a work force to keep up with their expansion.

"There is an infrastructure that has to rise," he said. "It all comes down to people. . . . And Allegiant is growing faster than they can manage their day-to-day operations."

Goglia said the outward signs of stress at Allegiant are, on their face, far less severe than what ValuJet experienced. "From my point of view,'' he said, ''you only need to be 10 percent as bad as ValuJet to get my attention."

And Goglia said Allegiant mishaps are telltale clues of a maintenance culture that is straining at the seams.

• • •

Passengers often complain about problems with Allegiant service that appear tied to inadequate staffing levels.

Garrett Gregory of Indianapolis said his Feb. 18 flight from his hometown to St. Pete-Clearwater was delayed by more than four hours before it was canceled and rescheduled for the next day. The pilots, passengers were told, had exceeded the maximum number of hours they could work in one day and another crew was unavailable.

Gregory said only one person was available to help passengers find hotel rooms, making for a long line and angry customers.

The next day, the flight out of Indianapolis was two hours late because of engine trouble, he said. "The impression they left me was just terrible."

As the Times reported in October, delays reaching Allegiant's customer service call center can be enormous, a problem that Allegiant has previously acknowledged.

Carmen Consalvo of Seminole said his wife, Indy, tried to cancel a reservation by calling Allegiant's customer service number. The couple said they were on hold a total of 11.5 hours over several days last June before giving up.

Bozeman, Mont., resident Brendon Beyers said he was flabbergasted by the crowd of Allegiant passengers packed into an airport in Mesa, Ariz., experiencing long delays as overwhelmed ticket agents tried to keep up.

"It was like everybody trying to get out of Saigon," he said, referring to the evacuation of U.S. personnel in 1975 because of approaching communist forces. "It was absolute, horrendous chaos."

Stuckenberg, the Tampa resident whose February flight aborted takeoff after an engine failure, said he was struck by the lack of information Allegiant employees provided to passengers after his flight was delayed for hours. The airline offered no help for passengers frantic to find alternatives after missing connecting flights.

He said employees seemed overwhelmed and inexperienced.

"Operations failures and emergencies, although uncommon, can happen," he said in a letter published in the Times. "However, failures in customer care, reasonable follow-up and basic human concern are inexcusable."

Allegiant leaders have insisted that all airlines experience customer service complaints and maintenance issues like emergency landings and that such problems don't point to an unsafe carrier.

"As I tell our people, the systems are set up to deal with problems," Allegiant CEO Gallagher told financial analysts in January. "When you have people and machinery, you are going to have issues with those and a safe environment such as what the FAA and the NTSB have put together allow for those to be anticipated and corrected accordingly."

Schiavo, the former inspector general at the Department of Transportation who some criticize as being alarmist, said she has warned friends and family against flying Allegiant.

"Allegiant clearly has maintenance issues," she said. "The parallels with ValuJet are amazing. I am frightened for Allegiant's passengers."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.