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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

File - In this May 9, 2013, file photo, two Allegiant Air jets taxi at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Shares of Allegiant Airâ\u0080\u0099s parent company are tumbling in Monday, April 16, 2018, premarket trading following a â\u0080\u009C60 Minutesâ\u0080\u009D investigation that expressed serious safety concerns about the airline. (AP Photo/David Becker, File) NYAG102
Published Apr. 19, 2018

Allegiant Air's safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration's reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier's high rate of mid-flight breakdowns, which built on earlier Tampa Bay Times reporting that found Allegiant had far more incidents than other major airlines. While Allegiant has made improvements by beginning to modernize its fleet, the flying public in Tampa Bay still has plenty of reasons to be concerned.

A Times investigation in 2016 found that Allegiant flights were four times as likely as other carriers' flights to make unexpected landings due to midair mechanical failures. The company heavily relied on a fleet of older planes, which allowed it to keep its ticket costs low. But aging planes require more upkeep, and the Times report documented how Allegiant's maintenance operation missed routine inspections and often fixed problems only temporarily. Eighteen times in one year, key aircraft components failed during flight, got checked out and then failed again, leading to another unexpected landing.

The FAA noticed but did little in the way of enforcement, citing the airline only for maintenance paperwork deficiencies and allowing it to file its own corrective action plan. The agency has no means of measuring airlines' safety records against one another, so it was unaware that Allegiant's rate of unexpected landings far outpaced the rest of the industry.

What has changed? 60 Minutes found that Allegiant's midair breakdown is now 3.5 times that of American, United, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit. That's a slight improvement but far from satisfactory. And it reported that the company has replaced some of its oldest planes, which were 27 years old on average. That's a positive change, but not enough. Newer planes still have to be maintained, for one thing. The FAA's head of Flight Standards told 60 Minutes that the agency addresses the "root cause" of each incident and ensures that a fix is in place. But if that's the case, why is Allegiant still experiencing so many more problems than its peers?

Allegiant accounts for virtually all of the passenger traffic at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. It has grown quickly, adding more destinations to smaller, under-served cities. Its shaky mechanical record carries huge stakes for the airport and for Pinellas tourism in general. Airport and tourism officials should keep a close watch on the steps Allegiant is taking to improve safety — and hold the airline to its commitments.

Outside pressure is clearly needed since the FAA has been so hands-off. Following the 60 Minutes report, Sen. Bill Nelson called for an investigation into the FAA's handling of Allegiant's safety-related incidents. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, wants more accountability for past breakdowns. Those are both welcome developments in a problem that has persisted for years even as the airline expands.

The mechanical failures on Allegiant Air flights do not constitute a few isolated incidents. Allegiant has an established record that raises serious safety concerns, and the changes it has made to improve are not enough. It's well past time for the FAA to demand more and impose serious sanctions if Allegiant does not deliver.

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