Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pennsylvania passengers wary, airports watchful as Allegiant planes suffer more breakdowns

It was supposed to be a proud day for Harrisburg International Airport. On Feb. 18, the airport was launching a new route with Allegiant Air that would take midstate residents to Florida for as little as $58 one-way. 

Attracted by the low fare, Tim Johnson, 29, and his girlfriend snagged a ticket for a weekend getaway. They arrived that morning for the maiden voyage to an airport that was decked out in inflatable flamingos and palm trees. The Beach Boys crooned over the radio and an Allegiant executive gave a speech before passengers boarded.

But only moments after settling into their seats did it became clear that something was wrong.

The plane wasn't moving.

After two hours, with little explanation, the passengers were asked to disembark. Mechanics were flown into the Lower Swatara Township airport to work on the plane. "They would go in, come back out and shake their heads," Johnson recalled.

After four more hours, the passengers were told they could board again. Johnson and his girlfriend arrived in Florida around dinnertime and returned without incident. But the plane's failure – on its maiden voyage, no less – had almost been comically infuriating.

"There was a lot of frustration," he said. "A lot of, 'this can't let us ruin our trip.' But there was definitely a lot of frustrated, angry people."

While all planes have breakdowns, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that Allegiant is particularly susceptible to problems. In a story that was published on the website Nov. 2, the news organization found that the budget carrier's planes are four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines.

Working through the data it collected from the Federal Aviation Administration, a team of reporters connected a year's worth of flight records with documents showing mechanical problems at the 11 largest domestic carriers in the United States, including Allegiant. According to the story, reporters interviewed 20 aviation experts, including former federal safety inspectors, aircraft engineers and mechanics.

Then they traveled to Las Vegas and met with Allegiant executives for a series of interviews. The airline did not dispute the newspaper's findings, which included:

Forty-two of Allegiant's 86 planes broke down in mid-flight at least once in 2015. Among them were 15 forced to land by failing engines, nine by overheating tail compartments and six by smoke or the smell of something burning.

After certain systems on Allegiant planes fail, the company repairs them and puts the planes back in service, only to see the same systems fail again. Eighteen times last year, key parts such as engines, sensors and electronics failed once in flight, got checked out, and then failed again, causing another unexpected landing.

Allegiant's jets are, on average, 22 years old. The average age of planes flown by other carriers is 12. Experts say planes as old as Allegiant's require the most rigorous maintenance in the industry. But Allegiant doesn't staff its own mechanics at 107 of the 118 airports it flies to.

Allegiant relies most heavily on McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, an aging model retired by all but two other major U.S. carriers. The company's MD-80s fail twice as often as those operated by American Airlines and three times as often as those flown by Delta.

A few days after that, the Times published an editorial that addressed the findings in the investigation.

Allegiant Chairman and CEO Maurice J. Gallagher Jr. responded to the original story and the editorial with a letter to the editor that was published Wednesday on the Times website, disputing the conclusions.

"The Times irresponsibly conflates reliability with safety," he wrote. "Diversions delay one's travel plans, but they certainly do not mean safety was in any way compromised." Later in the letter, he complained that information the reporters gathered on Allegiant's maintenance procedures and safety programs never made it into the story. 

While Johnson's breakdown in Harrisburg occurred before takeoff, three incoming or outgoing Allegiant flights had midair malfunctions in Pennsylvania last year according to data provided to PennLive by the Tampa Bay Times.

Those include an April 18, 2015, flight from Punta Gorda, Fla., to Lehigh Valley International Airport that was forced to turn around because of a problem with its right engine. The engine was removed and replaced after landing.

Meanwhile, on June 17, 2015, a flight from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh turned back because of a problem with its air conditioner.

Upon landing, the air conditioner also had to be removed and replaced.

On June 21, a flight from Lehigh Valley to Charlotte County, Fla., was forced to turn around after it faced a more serious incident: Its left engine was dangerously overheating.

Once the plane returned to the airport, it became clear that the issue was serious enough that it needed to be piloted by a special crew to a maintenance facility.

But one of the most serious incidents in the country occurred just over Pennsylvania's southern border, on June 8, 2015.

At Hagerstown International Airport in Maryland, an Allegiant flight conducted an emergency landing during takeoff after a flight attendant reported fumes that seemed like burning rubber.

According to a Tampa Bay Times report from court documents related to that incident, the aircraft's elevator jammed, causing its nose to rise prematurely.

The pilot later said that he believes the plane would have crashed if it had become airborne.

Scott Miller, spokesman for the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which operates the Harrisburg airport, said airport officials are taking their cue from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"They are the experts," he said. "I'm sure if there was an issue, the FAA would have taken drastic action and grounded" the planes.

Miller added that while Allegiant planes had seen delayed and canceled flights out of Harrisburg over the past year, the airline was "fairly reliable." He said the airline was working closely with the federal agency to ensure compliance.

"This is not a new story," Miller said.

Officials at Lehigh Valley International Airport, which also flies Allegiant, echo the sentiments out of the Harrisburg airport.

"The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for regulating the airline industry through safety inspections and monitoring flight operations," said the authority's executive director, Charles Everett.

He noted that Allegiant maintains its FAA certification to continue flying their aircraft. Everett added that while officials at Lehigh have seen the Tampa Bay Times report, they we have not fully reviewed it.

"Our mission at the LNAA is operating safe, efficient and modern airport facilities for passengers in the Lehigh Valley," he said. "In over a decade of providing affordable air service at LVIA, Allegiant continues to demonstrate their commitment to delivering an enjoyable and safe customer experience, while also becoming a reliable partner in the community with their support of Wings for Autism and Make-a-Wish. We are happy with our relationship."

After learning about Tampa Bay Times' findings, and his own rough experience with the airline still fresh in his mind, Johnson said he was now wary of flying Allegiant.

"I think next time we will just pony up a few extra dollars and fly a more reliable airline," he said. 

Everett noted that as part of its investment in the future, Allegiant is transitioning out of the MD-80 and into the Airbus320.


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