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Allegiant Air has second emergency landing this month at St. Pete-Clearwater

Allegiant officials have said the airline has one of the best safety records in the industry.  The company flies about 70 aircraft.
Allegiant officials have said the airline has one of the best safety records in the industry. The company flies about 70 aircraft.
Published Jun. 18, 2015

CLEARWATER — An Allegiant Air flight made an emergency landing at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport on Wednesday after pressurization problems, the second time this month an Allegiant aircraft has been forced to return to the airport.

Flight 866 had been heading to Pittsburgh before landing in Clearwater at 5:07 p.m., just under an hour after taking off, according to the airline.

The flight made it about as far north as Ocala before reversing course, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.com.

Allegiant's maintenance team was evaluating the plane Wednesday evening. In the meantime, the airline rescheduled a flight for 7:10 p.m. All 154 passengers were given $50 vouchers for future travel.

"I don't feel safe flying Allegiant," said one displaced passenger, Mary Fagan, who said there were several dozen others who, like herself, chose not to take the rescheduled flight. "You just get that feeling. It's scary."

Fagan, who had been flying north for work, fell asleep after takeoff. She was nudged awake by the man next to her, who told her about the turnaround.

"I said, 'Am I dreaming or what?' " she recalled. Later, as the rescheduled flight took off, she waited for her niece to pick her up.

"It's just very frustrating," she said. "I don't know what my next move is."

Earlier in June, another Allegiant flight made an emergency landing after taking off from the St. Pete-Clearwater airport. Smoke appeared in the plane's cabin about eight minutes after takeoff, and passengers disembarked on emergency slides after landing. Three passengers and one flight attendant reported injuries, and the airline gave all passengers $200 and a full refund.

Allegiant pilots reported more than three dozen mechanical issues across the country from September to March, including nine incidents involving St. Pete-Clearwater International. An April report detailing those incidents was compiled by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Aviation Mechanics Coalition, or TAMC.

Chris Moore, a TAMC chairman and veteran aviation mechanic who wrote the report, said in an interview that Wednesday's emergency landing was just the latest evidence that the airline needs to do more to address safety issues.

"This supports everything we've been saying," Moore said of the latest incident. "The problem is there. We've been seeing it on almost a daily basis not just in Florida but around the country. The FAA needs to take a much closer look, a much harder look at Allegiant's maintenance program."

Of the nine incidents in the report involving St. Pete-Clearwater, three involved flights in which Allegiant planes were forced to return to the airport after takeoff. One involved a Jan. 19 flight bound for Ohio that returned due to the crew reporting smoke in the cockpit. The other two flights involved electrical and pressurization problems, the report said.

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Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said earlier Wednesday, before the emergency landing, that the FAA did not have data that would allow the comparison of Allegiant with other airlines on the number of minor mechanical issues like those noted in the union report.

After Moore's report was released in April, the FAA said it was closely monitoring the airline. Allegiant officials could not be reached to comment Wednesday. But they have previously defended the airline, saying it has one of the best safety records in the industry.

"The FAA is continuously monitoring, evaluating and providing oversight of Allegiant Air to ensure the carrier is capable of meeting its responsibility for safe operations," the FAA said at the time. "The FAA has increased surveillance while the airline deals with the current labor issues."

The average age of Allegiant's fleet of about 70 aircraft is 22.2 years, with most of the fleet having been built in the 1980s, according to the union report. Most airline experts agree safety is not compromised by flying older planes with adequate maintenance.

But the pilot's union, which has been involved in a labor dispute with Allegiant, has complained that Allegiant's older fleet is serviced by relatively inexperienced mechanics with 55 percent of the airline's 1,800 mechanics having less than four years of experience.

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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