Saturday, September 3, 2016

South Bend International Airport (KSBN) director defends Allegiant safety: Airline's safety record is under scrutiny

South Bend International Airport’s top official voiced confidence in Allegiant Air on Friday, a day after a Washington Post report outlined federal regulators’ concerns about the low-cost airline’s safety.

Airport Executive Director Mike Daigle acknowledged that Allegiant flies older planes, which can have mechanical problems, but he said Allegiant’s “track record shows they’ve done a good job at identifying problems before takeoff.”

“At times Allegiant has had mechanical delays that have delayed departures, but they’ve solved those as quickly as possible and taken care of customers and passengers while the aircraft gets repaired, or sometimes another aircraft is flown in to take the flight,” Daigle said. “Every airline has mechanical issues.”

From Jan. 1, 2015, through this March, according to The Post, Allegiant had nine times as many serious incidents as Delta had with similar types of planes of similar vintage, even though Delta was flying three times as many planes. Those incidents included aborted takeoffs, emergency descents and emergency landings.

An Allegiant flight from South Bend to Orlando, Fla., made an emergency landing at another Florida airport July 6 following reports of an unusual odor in the cabin. The plane, carrying 166 passengers and six crew, landed safety at Jacksonville International Airport. The crew reported no smoke in the cabin and determined no evacuation was necessary. Passengers exited the plane and flew another Allegiant aircraft to Orlando five hours later.

“They solve their mechanical issues before they leave the ground and if it happens midflight, they land safely so people’s safety isn’t compromised,” said Daigle, who wasn’t referring specifically to the July 6 incident.

Over this year’s first six months, Allegiant flew 33 percent of passengers using South Bend International Airport — less than Delta’s 48 percent but more than United’s 20 percent.

Round-trip economy class airfare from South Bend to Las Vegas, leaving Sept. 8 and returning Sept. 11, would cost $299 on Allegiant, $446 on Delta and $432 on United, according to quotes gathered Friday from the airlines’ websites. The Allegiant flight is nonstop, while Delta stops in Detroit and United in Chicago.

Daigle noted that South Bend International Airport’s average round-trip fare in 2015’s third quarter was $496, compared with $561 nationally. He said Allegiant’s lower fares make flying accessible for more Michiana travelers.

“It helps South Bend,” he said.

But Mary F. Schiavo, an aviation lawyer who served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996, told The Post that Allegiant, which is able to charge lower fares because it spends less for older aircraft, needs to pay closer attention to their condition.

“They have electrical smells every day, which means they’ve got old wiring,” Schiavo told The Post. “It’s just kind of a poorly maintained fleet.”

Las Vegas-based Allegiant has 80 planes serving 113 airports. After the airline had six unscheduled landings because of midair problems from Feb. 28 to March 13, the FAA moved up a periodic inspection of the airline that had been scheduled for 2018, The Post reported.

There seemed to be mixed awareness of the safety concerns among travelers and their loved ones Friday afternoon at South Bend International.

Dean Breniser, of Middlebury, was there to meet his daughter, who was arriving on an Allegiant flight from Mesa, Ariz. He said he’s flown Allegiant six or seven times, to both Florida and Arizona, and has never encountered safety problems or delays. He said he feels confident flying the airline.

Sharon Recor, of Sebring, Fla., also was waiting for the arrival of the Allegiant flight Friday. Her son was on it. She said she flew Allegiant from Florida when she came to visit a month ago, although she had heard news a while back about safety issues related to the airline.

She’d prefer not to fly Allegiant until its safety record improves. “I’d want Delta or Southwest,” she said.

Her son will be driving her back to Florida, so Recor won’t have to make a decision about an airline return flight.

Kayla Burkhard, 17, of Niles, arrived on the Allegiant flight Friday from Mesa. She said she’s flown the airline numerous times between South Bend and Arizona. “I’ve never had any trouble,” she said.

Shari Miller, of Phoenix, also was a passenger on Friday’s flight from Arizona.

“I never knew there were any safety issues with Allegiant,” said Miller, a former travel agent. She said she likely would take the airline’s safety record into consideration in booking future flights.


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