Allegiant defends emergency landing at closed airport

Allegiant is the dominant carrier operating out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Allegiant is the dominant carrier operating out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published July 31, 2015

Allegiant Air defended itself on Thursday amid a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into an emergency landing one of the airline's jets made last week at a closed airport while running low on fuel.

The low-cost carrier said it and the FAA found that the pilots operating Flight 426 from Las Vegas McCarran International Airport to Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., acted "in a safe manner and within the bounds of all regulations." The North Dakota airport was closed when Flight 426 approached, and it didn't have enough fuel to wait 40 minutes or divert 70 miles to Grand Forks.

The pilots declared an emergency and landed at Fargo on July 23.

"Our captain exercised sound judgment in the operation of his aircraft," said Allegiant CEO Steve Harfst in a prepared statement released Thursday.

The pilots of Flight 426, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, were two of the company's top executives: Greg Baden, vice president of operations, and Michael Wuerger, director of flight safety, government affairs and quality assurance. There were 142 passengers, two children and six crew members on board the McDonnell Douglas MD-80.

Allegiant Air is the dominant carrier at St. Pete-Clearwater International and has helped fuel Pinellas County's buoyant tourism industry by rapidly adding flights to new destinations.

But the low-cost carrier has also been the subject of much scrutiny because of a growing list of emergency landings across the country, including three recent landings within a month at the Pinellas County airport. Allegiant is also at odds with its pilots' union over labor and safety issues.

Allegiant aircraft were involved in at least 65 incidents from September 2014 to March 2015, according to the pilots union, including aborted takeoffs and diversions involving maintenance issues. Then over a span of 28 days, Allegiant experienced another 28 such incidents from June 8 to July 6, the union said.

"Allegiant has been in constant communication with the FAA during this investigation and has not been advised of any additional surveillance or heightened oversight by the FAA," the airline said in its statement.

Harfst said that the closure of Fargo's airport affected several commercial and non-commercial aircraft attempting to land during the five-hour period it was shut down so that the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squad could practice there.

"Although sufficient fuel remained to divert to Grand Forks, Flight 426 made the decision to declare an emergency, allowing the flight to land immediately at Fargo in order to avoid utilizing reserve fuel," the airline's statement said.

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Retired St. Petersburg airline pilot and aviation safety expert John Cox said, at that point, it's a judgment call on part of the plane's captain.

"All those decisions are not ones he would like to have to make and he made that choice," he said. "The decision to declare an emergency meant they landed with more fuel than if they had diverted."

The flight landed in Fargo with about 42 minutes of reserve fuel remaining.

If weather conditions are good and there are two runways in operation at the destination airport, Cox said, an airliner can take off if it has enough fuel for getting to that airport, maintaining the airport's known holding time plus another 45 minutes of flight time.

"The 42 minutes means that even though it was only about three minutes they did burn into reserve fuel and you never plan on doing that," Cox said.

He said Flight 426 had sufficient fuel to continued flying for another 40 minutes.

The FAA could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Information from the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Wall Street Journal was used in this report.