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Aviation

US budget airline Allegiant under fire after scathing ‘60 Minutes’ report into safety record

The segment included interviews with shaken passengers and experts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 2:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 9:57pm

The parent company of Allegiant Air faced calls for an inquiry into its safety record and a sharp drop in its stock price after a report by CBS News’ 60 Minutes alleged the US budget airline suffers a high number of mechanical problems.

The 60 Minutes segment, which aired Sunday, found more than 100 “serious mechanical incidents” on the ultra-low-cost carrier between January 2016 and October 2017. 

Almost 30 per cent of Allegiant’s planes are “antiquated” McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 aircraft, the programme said.

The report was based on a review of US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data and interviews with industry experts.

The report also suggested that lax FAA oversight had allowed Allegiant’s mechanical issues, including an instance of in-flight engine failure, to continue. Both the federal agency and the airline denied this was the case.

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In response to the CBS report, US lawmakers demanded information on how such system failures had persisted for so long.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees airlines, asked the US Department of Transportation inspector general to investigate how the FAA handled safety incidents involving Allegiant.

US Representative Charlie Crist, a Florida Democrat, wrote separately to the Transportation Department, demanding the agency “take action to improve passenger safety,” as well as to hold Allegiant accountable for past safety failures.

In a statement, Las Vegas-based Allegiant dismissed the claims in the 60 Minutes segment as a “false narrative,” and called suggestions of intentional regulatory violations “offensive and defamatory”.

“CBS produced a one-sided narrative by cherry-picking interviews and ignoring publicly available facts,” Allegiant’s Vice-President of Operations Eric Gust said.

“Allegiant complies with all FAA requirements and participates in numerous voluntary safety programmes to ensure we operate to the highest standards.”

Responding to growing pressure on its regulation of Allegiant, the FAA said it was “committed to pursuing the highest level of aviation safety.”

“To that end, we welcome any outside review of our safety oversight system, and we welcome the opportunity to present a complete and accurate picture of how that system works.”

In an earlier statement, the FAA said that Allegiant’s reported incident rate has trended downward in recent years. Allegiant reported 0.0029 events per 1,000 departures in 2017.

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But safety experts say the numbers tell another story.

“The number of in-flight incidents that Allegiant has had speaks volumes, it is simply unacceptable,” Alan Price, a former chief pilot for Delta Air Lines, said.

FAA records obtained in 2016 by Alternative Research Services owner Robert MacArthur found the airline was plagued by emergency landings, failed take-offs, engine troubles and other issues.

A Washington Post analysis at the time found that Allegiant had about nine times as many “serious incidents” from January 2015 through March 2016 as Delta Air Lines, the second-largest US carrier, despite Delta having flown about three times as many comparable planes in the period. 

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Allegiant’s record of breakdowns appears related partly to the age of its fleet, particularly its MD-80 planes, which are nearly 28 years old on average and require more maintenance than newer planes.

The airline plans to retire all its MD-80s by the end of this year. 

In the meantime, they will continue to fly passengers from smaller airports to resort locations such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida.

Investors fear that negative publicity will drive travellers away from Allegiant. Shares of parent company Allegiant Travel Co. fell US$4.65, or 3.1 per cent, to US$146.40 on Monday after dropping 8.6 per cent Friday in anticipation of a damaging news report

Reuters, Associated Press, Bloomberg