Pilots: Firing of Allegiant Air pilot for St. Pete-Clearwater emergency landing endangers public

The firing over the evacuation was a warning to pilots, who were in contract talks with the airline, some Allegiant pilots say.
The firing over the evacuation was a warning to pilots, who were in contract talks with the airline, some Allegiant pilots say.
Published Jul. 20, 2016

Allegiant Air's termination of a pilot who ordered the evacuation of an aircraft last year at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport endangers the public because other pilots might hesitate in an emergency for fear of being second-guessed.

That is according to pretrial testimony of Allegiant pilots, made public late Monday, in the lawsuit against Allegiant filed by the fired pilot, Jason Kinzer, in Nevada state court. Pilots also said they would have done the same as Kinzer if presented with the same circumstances — evacuate the airplane.

Pilot Cameron Graff testified that Kinzer's dismissal was a warning by the Las Vegas-based airline to its pilots, who were then engaged through their union in bitter contract negotiations with Allegiant.

"It's my opinion that Capt. Kinzer was terminated to quell the pilot group, to silence the pilot group, to … keep the pilots from reporting safety events, emergencies, those type of events," said Graff, a pilots' union leader.

"That type of message I would say is dangerous to the public safety because it puts pilots in a position where they don't report safety issues, they don't report mechanical issues. They may even hesitate at a time they need to evacuate … and having more on their minds that, 'Am I going to be second-guessed for getting these people off the airplane safely? And will I be terminated?' "

That had real world implications last August, according to testimony, when an Allegiant aircraft's elevator — a critical control surface on the plane's tail — jammed during a flight's take-off roll, causing the aircraft's nose to rise prematurely at a speed of more than 130 mph.

The pilot successfully aborted takeoff, later reporting that the aircraft probably would have crashed if it had become airborne.

Allegiant pilot Michael Bastianelli testified in the Kinzer case that he spoke to the pilot who aborted that takeoff.

"He told us his first thought (was) … 'If I initiate this abort, I'm going to get called in for another meeting,' " Bastianelli said. "And he said — he's very upset about that because he lost three to four seconds of time as that thought went through his head, and that ate up an extra thousand foot of runway or so."

Excerpts of testimony by Graff and several other Allegiant pilots are attached as exhibits in a motion filed by Kinzer's attorneys opposing Allegiant's motion to dismiss the case. No trial date is yet set in the lawsuit that argues Kinzer was unjustly fired. Allegiant says Kinzer displayed poor judgment and did not need to evacuate the plane.

Allegiant officials did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment by the Tampa Bay Times.

Kinzer, then 43, was flying Flight 864 that departed the Pinellas County airport with 141 passengers on June 8, 2015, bound for Hagerstown, Md., when flight attendants reported acrid smoke in the cabin. The pilot declared an emergency and returned to the airport.

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Evacuation chutes were deployed upon landing. Eight people suffered minor injuries in the evacuation. The most serious injury was a broken wrist.

The motion said pilots were told by someone in airport fire rescue upon landing, "I'm showing smoke on the No. 1 engine."

Allegiant's operating manual for pilots mandates an evacuation even with just the "possibility of a fire," the motion said. The motion said confusion among fire rescue personnel also contributed to the decision to evacuate. An unidentified person with fire rescue told the crew not to evacuate, but then fire rescue failed to respond when Kinzer tried repeatedly to contact them, the motion said.

The pilots worried they did not respond because they were too busy fighting a fire, the motion said.

Greg Baden, a pilot who was Allegiant's vice president of operations when Kinzer was fired, acknowledged that he believed Kinzer's motivation in evacuating the aircraft was passenger safety.

Referring to the older, MD-80 Kinzer was flying, Baden said, "It's a 40-year-old airplane and the tolerances aren't as tight as they should be."

Several Allegiant pilots deposed in the case said they would have evacuated the aircraft just as Kinzer had.

"Given the same information he had at the time, I probably would have made the exact same decision," said pilot Gary Hasterok. He attended an Allegiant review board meeting investigating the emergency landing.

He said that during Allegiant's formal review of the case that its "agenda was to transfer blame from the company to the pilot, and they weren't really interested in what Capt. Kinzer had to say. It seemed they already made up their mind" to fire him.

Contact William R. Levesque at Follow @Times_Levesque.