Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why did Allegiant Air's second-in-command resign? Likely over safety issues, experts say



More than a week before Allegiant Air's chief operating officer abruptly resigned, John Goglia questioned the airline's response to five emergency landings during the last week of 2015.

All five were flights departing Florida.

Goglia, a widely respected aviation accident investigator, said an identical series of incidents would warrant quick discipline against those overseeing maintenance at other airlines. Allegiant had done nothing publicly.

"A vice president of maintenance would be looking for a new job, and probably a few people with him," said Goglia, who served a decade as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "Heads would roll."

The abrupt resignation of Allegiant chief operating officer Steve Harfst a week ago after just 13 months in the job left some industry watchers questioning whether his was the first head to roll as a consequence of the airline's highly publicized maintenance and operational difficulties during 2015.

That departure comes as the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting increased surveillance of Allegiant amid reports of multiple emergency landings and other problems, according to the Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition, which is related to the Allegiant pilots' union.

One Allegiant aircraft made four separate emergency landings from Oct. 25 to Dec. 3 after reports of smoke in the cabin, an almost unheard-of occurrence for a lone aircraft over such a short period of time, aviation watchers say.

"The FAA is all over Allegiant right now," said Chris Moore, chairman of the coalition, which has documented maintenance issues at the airline on behalf of the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224.

Moore speculated that the COO's sudden departure was more a message to the FAA than the public that Allegiant is trying to address safety issues. The FAA would not confirm whether Allegiant is under increased scrutiny, though it said it is investigating maintenance incidents.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, said he had little doubt that Harfst was essentially fired.

"I suspect what happened is, as they do in any kind of company, things came to a head and the CEO and perhaps the board told this guy his services were no longer needed," he said. "I'm not convinced the right person left the company. I believe part of problem stems from its CEO and the imperious way in which he runs the company."

Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. is the airline's biggest stockholder, with 21.7 percent of the company's outstanding shares as of April. He is firmly in control of the airline, analysts say.

Gallagher was one of the founders of ValuJet, an airline that lost an aircraft in a 1996 Everglades crash that killed 110 people.

Harteveldt noted, "As a low-cost airline, which certainly follows FAA procedure, I don't know that Gallagher pushed the airline (Allegiant) to be better in terms of aircraft maintenance. They certainly have the ability to do so."

Allegiant officials say the airline is one of the safest in the nation and have accused the pilots' union of using unfounded safety concerns as a ploy in contract negotiations. Company spokeswoman Kim Schaefer said her company would not comment on Harfst's departure.

Late Thursday, Allegiant announced the appointment of Jude Bricker as its new COO. Bricker is the company's senior vice president of planning and will retain those duties.

Allegiant carried about 95 percent of the record 1.6 million passengers at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport last year and is viewed by tourism officials as a vital cog in Tampa Bay tourism. Allegiant serves 49 cities from the Pinellas airport, and will add the 50th in June when it begins flights to New Orleans.

The airline remains one of the most profitable in the world on a percentage basis. Last fall, its 24 percent profit margin was the highest among airlines globally.

But it was nonetheless a tumultuous 2015 for Allegiant's public relations as the airline suffered through a long list of emergency landings, including three in Pinellas during the summer. A flight to Fargo, N.D., had to land at a closed airport when the pilot, a member of Allegiant management, reported he was running low on fuel.

In August, a Las Vegas flight nearly ended in disaster when an aircraft's elevator — a control surface on the tail that helps a plane ascend or descend — was jammed in one position during a takeoff roll. Goglia and others in the industry said the flight may have ended in a crash had the pilot not aborted a takeoff at 138 mph.

Earlier this month, a former Allegiant mechanic told the Tampa Bay Times that he quit the airline's Sanford maintenance operation in October after just two weeks because he thought its mechanics operated a poor safety culture.

Allegiant may have invited speculation about Harfst's resignation by releasing a fuzzy statement that might have vaguely hinted at maintenance issues.

"The company will use this leadership change as an opportunity to refocus on operational needs and areas for improvement," the company said.

Harfst has declined to talk to reporters.

Brett Synder, founder of the aviation website CrankyFlier.com, said he thought operational problems at Allegiant were a reason for Harfst's resignation. But if Allegiant is trying to send a message to reassure the public, he questioned whether the public would even notice.

"People like a cheap deal," Synder said. "I think there is some amount of trust by the public that the FAA is doing its job in ensuring every carrier is safe. Whether that's misguided or not, that's embedded in people who don't follow the industry closely. I think people just look and see a good deal. They just don't notice" changes in airline leadership.

Dan Wells, president of Allegiant's pilots' union, said the resignation was odd and certainly unexpected, noting Harfst was seen working at headquarters just the day before.

But Allegiant's management has been slow to recognize or acknowledge maintenance problems, Wells said. And by not commenting about the COO's resignation, he was doubtful that Allegiant fired Harfst to telegraph anything.

"If they're saying, 'All right, we see a problem and we're fixing it,' I'd think they'd be very vocal about that," Wells said. "Sadly, given Allegiant's history, and (Gallagher's) personality, they still aren't recognizing they have a problem."

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