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Union: Allegiant Air pilot fired after St. Pete-Clearwater emergency landing

Published Sep. 26, 2015

Allegiant Air fired the pilot of a June 8 flight that made an emergency landing at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport after reports of smoke in the cabin, accusing him of trying to make the airline look bad, the pilots' union said Friday.

Allegiant officials declined to discuss the firing, which occurred in late July. But the airline told the Federal Aviation Administration in a report that mechanics could find no defect with the plane.

Four passengers and a flight attendant suffered minor injuries evacuating the aircraft via emergency chutes.

Dan Wells, president of the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, said the firing is unjustified and retaliation for pilots making an issue of the airline's safety in labor negotiations.

"Believe me, the message was intentional and loud and clear: Don't you dare push the safety stuff too far," said Wells, whose union represents the pilots of Allegiant and 10 other airlines.

The low-cost airline has defended its safety record and accused pilots of trying to create a public perception Allegiant is taking shortcuts on maintenance as a means of gaining an advantage in labor negotiations. The union denies this is so.

Allegiant spokeswoman Kim Schaefer declined to discuss the firing. "We continue to believe that our efforts should remain focused on attacking the issues at the bargaining table, rather than attacking each other," she said.

The union did not identify the pilot because of confidentiality concerns. The pilot has previously declined requests for comments by the Tampa Bay Times via intermediaries.

On the afternoon of June 8, Allegiant Flight 864 departed St. Pete-Clearwater for Maryland with 141 passengers. Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant reported "smoke/fumes" like burning rubber, according to a subsequent safety report Allegiant filed with the FAA.

The plane made an emergency landing, deploying evacuation slides.

Mechanics combed the aircraft to identify a malfunction. But the airline told the FAA they were unable to find any problem.

The flight was one of three emergency landings at the Pinellas airport in June and July, and one of the earliest in a string of summerlong incidents at Allegiant that raised questions of safety at the air carrier.

A passenger on the June 8 flight, Pinellas County resident Claudia Trejo, filed suit against Allegiant last week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The lawsuit said Trejo was injured when she was "trampled by other passengers who were directed down" an evacuation slide by the crew.

Trejo's Pinellas attorney, Peter Tragos, said his client would not comment about the lawsuit.

Wells said the pilot received reports of smoke from several flight attendants and possibly from passengers, though Wells said flight attendants would be considered the most-convincing authority of any report.

"The pilot didn't rely on a report from some nervous Nellie," Wells said. "He confirmed it with multiple people. There is only one thing you can do in that case, which is exactly what he did — evacuate the airplane."

Wells said the management official who fired the pilot was Greg Baden, vice president of Allegiant flight operations. Baden was the pilot of an Allegiant aircraft in July that declared an emergency while trying to land at Fargo, N.D., telling the control tower he was "bingo fuel," meaning he was too low on fuel to land elsewhere.

The tower told him the airport was closed because of an air show, something the tower told the pilot Allegiant should have know beforehand. The airline later said it had been told by the FAA the airport would be open for commercial aircraft.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant has said the aircraft had 43 minutes of fuel left upon landing and was not actually close to running out. But Baden indicated otherwise to air traffic controllers, according to the recording of his conversation with the tower.

Wells said the firing happened the same day as the Fargo flight.

Baden "fires him by phone," Wells said, "and then he flies and almost runs an airplane out of gas."

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