Sunday, February 7, 2016

Local officials say airline has 'excellent track record'

With great fanfare, officials of Okaloosa County Airports announced last month that after eight years of hard work “we’ve landed a big one” by luring Allegiant Air to Okaloosa County.

The flying public reacted quickly and favorably to the announcement, booking enough flights between Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport and Cincinnati and St. Louis that more have already been added.

“This is so good and so huge for our community,” said Tracy Stage, Okaloosa County’s interim airports director.

Related content Other local airport tenants faced their own issues in 2015 Allegiant, which in the last several years has been applauded by Forbes as a top 100 small business and by Aviation Week as a top-performing airline, gives this area something it hasn’t had for some time — no-frills, low-price, nonstop flights in and out of the county.

County commissioners, who voted in November to provide $3 million in public dollars to market Allegiant, said the airline’s primary value will be in luring visitors to Northwest Florida.

It is anticipated Allegiant will bring 23,000 new visitors annually to the Emerald Coast and pump nearly $7 million dollars into the local economy after its operations begin May 20.

Allegiant, however, will be sporting some baggage when it arrives, bringing a recent flight record tarnished by emergency landings, cancelled flights and scary passenger moments.

The Northwest Florida Daily News was able to document reports of nine Allegiant Air emergency landings or evacuations, and many more flight suspensions or cancellations, in just the second half of last year and the first two months of this one.

Only one of the emergency landings was weather-related and in that case a maintenance issue was also a factor in the decision to bring the plane down.

Emergency landings

- On June 8 an Allegiant flight from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport made an emergency landing eight minutes after takeoff when smoke was seen in the cabin, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Emergency slides were deployed to evacuate the plane.

- The Idaho Statesman reported a June 12 incident in which Allegiant passengers were evacuated onto the wing of a plane in Boise after people reported smelling fuel and smoke in the plane.

- A Tampa television station reported on June 17 an Allegiant plane made the second emergency landing at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in nine days after smoke was reported in the plane.

Four passengers and a flight attendant were hurt, according to reports, as flight crew evacuated passengers using emergency slides.

- The third emergency landing at St. Pete-Clearwater airport in a calendar month was reported July 3.

The Tampa newspaper said a flight from Asheville, N.C., to Punta Gorda was forced to divert to St. Pete-Clearwater.

Bad weather factored in the decision to land that flight, but Allegiant also confirmed a possible maintenance issue, the newspaper said.

- Also in July, the Las Vegas Review-Journal documented an Allegiant flight’s emergency landing in Fargo, N.D. Pilots communicated with the airport before the landing that the plane was dangerously low on fuel.

The pilot requested the landing apparently unaware that the North Dakota field had been closed while the Navy’s Blue Angels were practicing there.

- An Allegiant flight out of Las Vegas was aborted Aug. 17 as a plane began leaving the ground prematurely. The pilot had to hit the brakes as the aircraft was traveling at well over 100 miles per hour.

- A flight out of Fresno, Calif., was evacuated Oct. 13 when a fire started in the plane’s engine as it was preparing for takeoff.

- The Orlando Sentinel reported Dec. 31 that four Allegiant flights had been diverted for “various mechanical issues” between Dec. 24 and that day.

- An Orlando television station reported that on Feb. 3 an Allegiant plane flying out of that city blew out two tires beneath its left wing while landing at an airport in Allentown Pa.

None of the 158 passengers were hurt, but the return trip to Orlando was suspended while mechanics examined the aircraft.

Airline denies problems

Allegiant consistently denies there are any safety issues within its fleet.

“There is no significant issue, no safety concern,” company spokesperson Jessica Wheeler told the Daily News during a recent conference call. “We do not have any safety issues.”

The same response was provided across the board last year as questions were asked following various incidents.

“Allegiant’s safety record is among the best in the aviation industry,” company spokeswoman Kim Schaefer told a Florida television station last June. “Allegiant is fortunate that our unique network allows for our aircraft to be inspected and serviced by our mechanics every night.”

Schaefer said the airline monitors the overall health of its fleet by employing two separate programs, one for reliability and another for analysis and surveillance, and sharing data with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Neither Allegiant nor the FAA have identified abnormal trends,” she told the Tampa media.

The company did announce in August, following the aborted Las Vegas takeoff, that it would inspect all the planes in its fleet.

The FAA investigations

The FAA “investigates all airline precautionary and abnormal occurrences,” according to spokesman Ian Gregor, among them the “recent Allegiant Air events.”

The agency “evaluates every event in the context of an airline’s overall operations to determine whether an event or series of events could indicate a pattern or trend that we need to address.”

Most of the maintenance issues that led to emergency landings of Allegiant jets were addressed or could not be duplicated in testing, FAA documents indicate.

The FAA “intensified its focus on certain areas of Allegiant Air’s operations” following last summer’s incidents in Fargo and Las Vegas, Gregor said.

Investigators looking at the Fargo low-fuel landing focused primarily on flight operations and aircraft maintenance programs, the FAA said.

The investigation was closed with a letter of correction being sent to Allegiant Oct. 2 and a follow-up letter sent Dec. 4.

Allegiant agreed to better its dispatch personnel communications and training “to help prevent this type of incident from occurring again,” the FAA said.

The fleet

Much of the criticism aimed at Allegiant has been targeted at the MD-80 aircraft that composes the majority of its fleet.

The MD-80 — which was produced from 1979-1999 — has been involved in 12 fatal accidents since 1988, according to one report.

Stage, however, pointed out that Allegiant is not the only airline that relies heavily on the MD-80. The majority of Delta Air Lines planes are MD-80s, he noted.

In announcing plans to fly in and out of Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, Allegiant officials said the company would rely on the A320 aircraft in its fleet.

The A320, built by Airbus, was called “one of the least dangerous commercial planes in the sky,” in a March 24, 2015, article done by the Washington Post. The article was published following an A320 crash in the French Alps.

A Boeing study covering five decades of air disasters found the A320 fleet averaged about .14 fatal accidents per one million takeoffs.

Allegiant’s Wheeler said the company is actively adding to its Airbus inventory and moving toward “a slow retirement of the MD-80.”

“The MD-80 is safe,” Wheeler said, and will remain in service for three to five more years.

Stage said there was no signed agreement between the airport and Allegiant to assure that A320 planes rather than MD-80 planes would be operating at the airport. Allegiant did not respond to the question.

Union issues

For three years, Allegiant has been fighting a contract negotiation war with the Teamsters union, which represents both the airline’s pilots and mechanics.

At one point in 2015, after the company’s pilots threatened a strike, the FAA restricted Allegiant from expanding its operations to new markets.

“We typically put carriers under heightened surveillance when they experience labor issues or financial distress,” Gregor said. “Carriers that are under heightened surveillance typically cannot add aircraft or routes.”

Allegiant was under heightened surveillance restrictions for “a very brief period of early 2015,” Wheeler said.

“As soon as the FAA saw that the dispute in that instance had been put to bed and we were free from the strike threat they allowed us to grow again,” she said.

Union to blame?

Allegiant officials say much of the bad press that comes the airline’s way is simply Teamsters’ propaganda.

The airline is particularly sensitive about a widely circulated report put together by Chris Moore, the chairman of the Aviation Mechanics Coalition, a Teamsters affiliate.

“This report by the Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition is an attempt by the (union) to ‘negotiate’ outside of the legally prescribed process by putting pressure on Allegiant and its leadership through the media,” an emailed response to questions about the report said.

Moore claims to have overseen an investigation of Allegiant airplane maintenance at the request of the company’s pilots and, over the course of two months, documented numerous “events.”

Those events include everything from an engine operating at less than 20 percent of required power, to a shutdown due to oil loss “caused by improper maintenance”, to generator issues and smoke in the plane’s cabin, the report said.

Moore’s report, “Allegiant Air – Air Returns and Diversions due to Maintenance-related issues Sept.-Oct. 2014,” was provided to the Daily News by a Teamsters representative.

Kristin Sharp, a Hawaiian realtor, is accused of vaping on an Allegiant Air flight from Las Vegas to Hawaii in September 2015.

County response

Stage is staunch in his defense of Allegiant. He said complaints lodged against airlines are commonplace and that delays and cancellations occur across the board, primarily due to weather.

“Every airline has these type issues,” he said. “It’s not just Allegiant, it’s across the board.”

Stage said Allegiant is a FAA-certified airline coveted by flight destinations across the country.

The news release announcing Allegiant’s decision to add flights into and out of Okaloosa County said Allegiant “has been named one of America’s 100 Best Small Companies by Forbes Magazine for five consecutive years.”

Research indicates Allegiant was No. 2 on the Forbes list in 2009, 33rd in 2010, ninth in 2011, 14th in 2012 and 52nd in 2013. It has not appeared on the 100 Best list in 2014 or 2015.

It also noted that in 2014, “Aviation Week ranked Allegiant the Top-Performing Airline in North America for the third consecutive year.”

Allegiant indeed had ranked as the No. 1 performer in 2013 and was listed No. 2, behind a foreign carrier, in 2014.

It ranked as the third best performing company, behind Spirit Airlines and a foreign company, in 2015.

County Commissioners Nathan Boyles and Carolyn Ketchel, who serves as the commission’s airports liaison, said they had faith the county airport staff had performed the due diligence required to assure Allegiant was a good fit for Okaloosa County.

“I rely on the airport staff as my subject matter experts to evaluate and determine any proposed partnership has a high likelihood of success for Okaloosa County,” Boyles said.

Ketchel said she has heard nothing but positive things about Allegiant Air.

“I trust Tracy Stage and the people at the airport,” she said.

Stage confirmed, “I have no concerns (about Allegiant) at all locally.”

“I don’t want to speak on their behalf. But whatever minor issues they might have had out there is nothing more than what airlines deal with on a daily basis,” he said.

“We’ve done our homework for years. We’ve met and talked to Allegiant at different conferences and were finally able to land them,” Stage added. “They have an excellent track record.”

Original article can be found here:

No comments: