Wednesday, April 27, 2016

FAA investigating Allegiant Air after high-profile incidents

TAMPA — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Allegiant Air, the carrier that has experienced repeated mechanical problems and emergency landings and operates more than 100 flights a week out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The FAA confirmed that it is conducting an evaluation of Allegiant. The agency said the evaluation, known as the National Certificate Holder Evaluation, is performed on all airlines every five years, but Allegiant’s evaluation was moved up from 2018 to this month after a pair of high-profile incidents.

“The purpose of the review is to verify a company is complying with applicable regulations; determine whether it is operating at the highest possible degree of safety; and identify and address any problems that we identify,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA’s Pacific Division, in an email to The Tampa Tribune.

The evaluation is expected to be completed by late June.

In July, an Allegiant jet made an emergency landing at a closed airport in Fargo, N.D. after running low on fuel. The airport had been closed for a practice session of the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flight team, but the Allegiant jet was allowed to land.

Allegiant Air increased training for pilots and dispatchers and received a “letter of correction” from the FAA.

In August, pilots had to abort the takeoff of an Allegiant jet in Las Vegas that suffered a mechanical failure that caused the nose of the aircraft to rise prematurely. The airline blamed a fault in the elevator, a part of the tail that helps a plane climb or descend.

The FAA said it intensified its focus on Allegiant’s flight operations and aircraft maintenance programs after that problem.

The two incidents prompted the FAA to move up the Allegiant evaluation.

“We are confident in our operations, and we welcome the oversight,” Allegiant said in an email to the Tribune.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant was formed in 1997 as a budget carrier to connect smaller-town northern residents to vacation hotspots such as Orlando, Tampa and Las Vegas. It uses secondary airports with lower landing fees in many markets, such as St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and Orlando-Sanford International.

Allegiant carried about 95 percent of the 1.6 million travelers who used the Pinellas airport last year.

There have been additional incidents. In March, the Aviation Mechanics Coalition released a report to its Teamsters Union airline division, members of Congress, the FAA and the general public that detailed 98 maintenance issues from September 2015 through January 2016.

Thirteen of those incidents occurred on flights departing or arriving at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, ranging from a diversion to another airport for hydraulic system issues to a jet returning to the Pinellas airport with smoke in the cabin.

In March, an Allegiant jet en route from the Pinellas County airport to Elmira, N.Y. was diverted to Baltimore under crash landing procedures due to faulty brakes. In February, a flight bound for Omaha, Neb., made an emergency landing in Birmingham, Ala., due to smoke in the cabin.

Later that month, a takeoff from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International bound for Kansas City, Mo., was aborted due to an engine problem.

Airline officials say much of the bad press stems from union propaganda. Allegiant has been in ongoing disputes with its pilots, who are represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and its 600 flight attendants, who are represented by the Transport Workers’ Union. Its mechanics are not unionized.

The airline has been critical of the mechanics’ coalition, which has been compiling off-the-record reports of Allegiant flight incidents from pilots since 2014.

Pilots have threatened to strike, but a federal judge intervened to halt any walkoff.

Reports of Allegiant’s issues haven’t deterred investors or passengers. For its first quarter ended March 31, parent company Allegiant Travel Co. reported net income of $72 million, up from $65 million the same quarter of 2015.

The company said it executed agreements for a total of 11 additional Airbus aircraft to be delivered by 2020, and the company is operating 298 routes, up from 247 in the first quarter of 2015.

Earlier this month, the airline added new nonstop service from St. Petersburg-Clearwater to Flint, Mich., and to Dayton, Ohio. It will add its 50th destination, New Orleans, from the Pinellas airport in June.

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The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Wednesday that it is conducting a detailed, 90-day inspection of Allegiant Air's operations in response to "various internal issues" tied to maintenance and safety.

Such a comprehensive review is normally conducted at all airlines every five years. But the FAA said it was moving up its review of Allegiant by nearly two years to ensure the airline has remedied problems in operations.

The review began about April 1 and continues through June.

The FAA provided little detail about the reasons for the review, but said the issues were related to two flights last summer. One involved a near-crash of an aircraft in Las Vegas that suffered a jammed elevator on its tail during a takeoff that was aborted. The second involved an emergency landing in Fargo, N.D., due to low fuel at an airport that was partially closed.

The FAA's review comes as Allegiant officials recently have confirmed problems with operations after a year of steadfastly insisting all was well with the airline. Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. last week conceded the airline had a "bad summer" in 2015 with several emergency landings at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

The airline carried about 95 percent of the airport's record 1.6 million passengers in 2015.

Gallagher announced the airline's local management team had been replaced and Allegiant would hire five mechanics to work out of Pinellas County.

The airline also held a "media day" earlier this month where officials emphasized increased spending on safety. One intent of the event was to generate positive press to counter continued reports about problems, the airline told financial analysts Wednesday as they announced quarterly earnings.

"We've been proactive trying to make sure the message gets out," Gallagher said. "We certainly want to be ahead of (negative reports) and do the proper thing. It's just part of our maturation process."

The Allegiant pilots' union, involved in bitter contract negotiations, said Allegiant's recent comments on problems are overdue.

"It's clear that Allegiant's bare minimum approach to its operation isn't working," said Dan Wells, president of Teamsters Local 1224. "The federal government is conducting a high-profile investigation, and with an emergency occurring virtually every week due to a preventable maintenance issue, passengers are increasingly saying it isn't worth the risk to fly Allegiant."

Allegiant officials declined to comment.

The FAA's decision to move up the safety and operations review comes as the Las Vegas-headquartered airline continues to suffer apparent operational problems. On Monday, the airline canceled 10 flights, rescheduling all a day later. None of the flights was tied to St. Pete-Clearwater.

Over the weekend, two Allegiant flights suffered maintenance problems.

On Saturday, Allegiant technicians discovered during an overnight maintenance check that an aircraft's outer window panel was missing, and that it had hit the engine where it damaged a front engine fan blade. The panel would either have fallen off in flight or as the plane taxied, the FAA said. The inner portion of the window held firm, so the cabin did not lose pressurization.

The FAA did not identify that flight's destination or where it originated.

On Sunday, Flight 633 from Sanford, near Orlando, bound for West Virginia made an emergency landing after a low oil pressure reading led the pilots to shut down an engine, an internal Allegiant memo shows. It turned out the engine actually had adequate pressure and a sensor system had malfunctioned

By airline standards, it was a relatively minor event, even though it caused an unscheduled landing. All airlines encounter such problems. But this incident elicited a swift response from top Allegiant executives.

"A comprehensive investigation is underway," according to the memo to Allegiant's maintenance and operations teams by the airline's vice president of maintenance and engineering, Kurt Carpenter, and Eric Gust, vice president of operations.

Allegiant officials told analysts that stories about Allegiant's well-publicized maintenance issues are still not impacting ticket sales.

The airline reported $71.9 million in net income for the first quarter, up 11 percent from the same period last year. That was on $348 million in operating revenue, up 5.9 percent from 2015. The airline flew 2.59 million passengers in the quarter, up 15 percent from 2.25 million.

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