Friday, December 23, 2016

Editorial: Federal Aviation Administration not tough enough on Allegiant Airlines

The Federal Aviation Administration is the safety net for air travelers. The agency's inspectors scrutinize commercial airliners, and it can ground planes found to be unsafe. But the FAA has taken a hands-off approach to Allegiant Airlines despite a disturbing string of mechanical failures and unexpected landings spanning three years. Instead of allowing Allegiant, the main carrier at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, to devise its own remedies and then rubber-stamping them, the FAA should begin asserting its enforcement authority to demand improvements in the name of safety.

When a maintenance contractor overhauled an Allegiant jet last year, a worker signed off on a tail repair without noticing that a key part was missing. The plane made 261 flights carrying thousands of passengers until the missing piece finally caused the tail elevator to jam, forcing a high-speed aborted takeoff in Las Vegas with 164 people on board. Once the contractor agreed to have a second inspector sign off on repairs of critical parts, the FAA closed out the case. That example is a typical response to Allegiant's mechanical failures in 2015, of which there were dozens. Tampa Bay Times staff writers Nathaniel Lash and Michael LaForgia reviewed records of the breakdowns and found that the FAA did not take enforcement action in a single case.

Pinellas County and the entire Tampa Bay region have a big stake in Allegiant. The carrier flew more than a million passengers through the Pinellas airport last year, accounting for 95 percent of the airport's passenger traffic. Pinellas County's tourism agency has partnered with the airline in a marketing campaign. Allegiant's cheap tickets — many under $200 for a round trip — serving smaller cities around the country are enormously popular with travelers, allowing the airline to continue to grow and add destinations.

But bargains can have hidden costs. Earlier this year, the Times found Allegiant flights are four times as likely as those of other major carriers to make unexpected landings due to midair mechanical problems. By flying a fleet of older planes, not staffing its own mechanics at out-of-the-way airports, running a scattershot maintenance program all while pushing to grow quickly, Allegiant created conditions for problems to occur and reoccur unaddressed absent a firmer regulatory approach.

The FAA wouldn't know how Allegiant's record stacks up because it has no system for measuring airlines' performance against one another and flagging warning signs. That might explain why the FAA's review of Allegiant operations this year cited the company for only minor problems. There also is not enough distance between the airline and the agency that regulates it. Times reporters documented how a former FAA inspector in charge of monitoring Allegiant's maintenance programs retired from the agency and immediately went to work for Allegiant as manager of regulatory compliance. In another instance, a veteran FAA administrator who left amid scandal went to work for Allegiant as a consultant reviewing its operations. Such arrangements create an appearance of a conflict of interest, at best, and suggest that vigorous oversight could be lacking because of relationships among onetime colleagues. The FAA should implement rules to close that revolving door.

On its website, the FAA states its mission is "to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world." But for three years the agency has given Allegiant Airlines a virtual pass on mechanical failures and unexpected landings, levying no fines or penalties and allowing the airline to continue with business as usual. That sends a strong message that, mission statement aside, the FAA has allowed efficiency to outrank safety.


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