Senators demand investigation of safety problems at Allegiant Airlines

Capt. Eric Gust, the air carrier’s operations vice president, sent this statement to customers: “To you, a member of our Allegiant family of travelers, I want to be very clear: Safety is at the core of every aspect of our operation, every day.” (File photo)

Three U.S. senators called out the Federal Aviation Administration this week for not demanding safety improvements at Allegiant Airlines after a “60 Minutes” episode showed the carrier was 3.5 times more likely than seven other airlines to have serious in-flight mechanical failures.

In Montana, Allegiant offers direct flights from Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland/San Francisco and Phoenix/Mesa.

The safety problems, verified by FAA and National Transportation Safety Board documents and investigators and covering a 22-month period ending in October 2017, included mid-air engine failures, smoke and hazardous fumes in the cabin, flight control malfunctions, hydraulic leaks, aborted takeoffs and rapid descents.

The mechanical failures occurred at airports nationwide served by the budget airlines, which typically buys used aircraft and oftentimes hires contractors to do its maintenance work rather than keeping that task in-house, according to the CBS report.

In June of 2014, an Allegiant flight from Las Vegas to Missoula was forced to land in Wendover, Nevada, because of a hydraulic problem.

After the plane landed, smoke began to fill the cabin, passengers said after returning to Missoula. When the overhead oxygen masks did not deploy, passengers were told by flight attendants to breathe into their carry-on luggage. The masks never dropped from the overhead compartment.

Passengers on another Allegiant flight, this one from Cincinnati, Ohio, told of an almost identical emergency during the time period investigated by “60 Minutes.” They, too, said the oxygen masks did not deploy. Flight attendants told these passengers to breathe into their shirts.

The news magazine’s report was enough to prompt a response from senators Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., all members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The senators questioned both Allegiant’s overall safety and the FAA’s response to the serious incident reports.

In a letter to acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell, Markey and Blumenthal said: “Despite Allegiant’s high number of significant and repeated mechanical incidents, the investigation alleged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not brought a single enforcement action against the company in three years.”

Nelson, meanwhile, asked the Transportation Department’s inspector general to investigate the FAA’s handling of safety issues at Allegiant.

“The traveling public deserves to know whether the FAA is conducting thorough safety oversight of Allegiant,” wrote Nelson. “Anything less could lead to disastrous consequences.”

None of the malfunctions to date resulted in crashes or fatalities. But investigators and NTSB members interviewed by “60 Minutes” said they would not fly on the airline, nor would they allow friends or family members to do so.

Markey and Blumenthal asked several questions about the FAA’s compliance and enforcement policy, including:

  • Has the FAA looked into claims that Allegiant Air is creating a culture that discourages safety-related violation reporting?
  • How frequently do consumers and airline employees utilize the FAA’s hotline to anonymously bring safety concerns to the FAA’s attention? And what is the FAA’s process for following up on legitimate concerns raised through the hotline?
  • What are the FAA’s policies, practices, and procedures for following up on safety issues that are self-reported by airlines?
  • Does the FAA review news reports or consumer complaints to ensure that significant airlines safety issues are not missed?

According to the “60 Minutes” report, Allegiant had more than 100 mechanical issues from January 2016 to October 2017.

The FAA defended its oversight of the airline, saying it addressed each incident individually to its satisfaction and stressing that there have been no fatal crashes of U.S. passenger airlines since 2009. (That statement was true until Tuesday, when at least one person died after an engine exploded in midair on a Southwest Airlines jet, sending shrapnel through the cabin.)

Allegiant responded to the report with indignation. In a written statement, the company’s vice president of operations said the CBS report showed a “troubling misunderstanding” of the FAA’s oversight of commercial airlines.

“I want to tell you personally that I am outraged and astounded by the irresponsible, grossly misleading story aired by CBS 60 minutes,” Capt. Eric Gust said in a statement to customers. “To you, a member of our Allegiant family of travelers, I want to be very clear: Safety is at the core of every aspect of our operation, every day.”