Suit says Allegiant improperly fired pilot who evacuated plane after emergency landing

Published Nov. 12, 2015

An Allegiant Air pilot fired for ordering an evacuation of a aircraft after an emergency landing at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport has filed suit against the airline saying his termination was unjustified.

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

The lawsuit, filed in Las Vegas district court Tuesday, said air traffic control recordings show that emergency ground personnel told Kinzer the aircraft was "showing some smoke on your No. 1 engine."

The fumes could still be detected even after Kinzer deployed the engine's built-in fire extinguishing system, the suit said. At that point, Kinzer decided to deploy the aircraft's four emergency chutes to evacuate passengers and crew, the lawsuit said.

Four people suffered minor injuries evacuating the aircraft.

Allegiant officials, according to the pilot's union, later accused Kinzer of trying to make the airline look bad by deploying the evacuation chutes.

"Smoke in the cabin is obviously a major safety concern and there is no responsibility I take more seriously than protecting passengers and crew," Kinzer said in a written statement. "All I'm asking for is a recognition that evacuating the plane was the only safe course of action and a commitment from Allegiant to put safety first so my colleagues never have to worry that doing the right — and safe — thing could cost them their jobs."

In a July 23 letter firing Kinzer, Allegiant told him pilots needed professionalism and maturity.

"You do this by operating each aircraft safely, smoothly and efficiently and striving to preserve the Company's assets, aircraft, ground equipment, fuel and the personal time of our employees and customers," the letter said. "You failed to exhibit these behaviors during Flight 864. You ordered an evacuation that was entirely unwarranted and, as a result, your conduct ... compromised the safety of your crew your passengers."

Allegiant officials declined to discuss Kinzer's case with the Tampa Bay Times.

"We take any employee termination with great seriousness and ensure that a thorough investigation, collecting facts from all stakeholders, is conducted before any decision is made," the airline said.

The Las Vegas-based budget airline has been in a protracted labor dispute with the pilots' union. The Teamsters says negotiations over a contract are at a standstill, though Allegiant disputes that. The union accuses the airline of taking shortcuts on safety to increase profits. Allegiant officials say that is untrue and insist Allegiant is one of the safest airlines in the country.

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A transcript of conversations between Kinzer, air traffic controllers and ground personnel shows some confusion after Flight 864 landed. A commander of airport emergency responders told Kinzer, "I'm telling you not to evacuate yet."

Kinzer asked why, but he received no immediate reply.

Michael Pangia, Kinzer's attorney, said he was not sure who actually instructed the pilot to halt the evacuation, nor why they did so. But Pangia said the pilot is ultimately in control of the aircraft with the final say in whether or not to evacuate during an emergency.

Kinzer said during a conference call with reporters he and the first officer received "frantic" reports from flight attendants about smoke in the cabin and that both pilots decided an evacuation was warranted.

"I should note that evacuation is, of course, first and foremost the safest thing to do anytime fire or smoke is an issue onboard an airplane," said Kinzer. He also said it is Allegiant policy to evacuate in the event of smoke or fire.

"I was completely blown away when Allegiant management decided to terminate me for doing something in the interest of safety," Kinzer said.

The suit seeks both punitive and actual damages in excess of $10,000.

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