BREAKDOWN OF OVERSIGHT
By NATHANIEL LASH and MICHAEL LaFORGIA, Tampa Bay Times
Times staff writers William R. Levesque and Anthony Cormier and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Designed by Lyra Solochek and Lauren Flannery.
On Allegiant Air’s worst night last year, mechanical breakdowns forced the airline’s planes to make one unexpected landing after another.
One flight had to land in Mesa, Ariz., after the captain’s instrument panel started smoking. Another returned to Las Vegas when the tail compartment overheated. Another circled back to Mesa because one of its power generators started failing. Another diverted to Idaho Falls when a fuel pump malfunctioned.
Before the night was finished on June 25, 2015, five Allegiant flights had been interrupted in four hours, all because different planes had failed in midair.
The Federal Aviation Administration collected records on all of the incidents.
But it didn’t order a single corrective action.
In 1996, ValuJet 592 took off from Miami, caught fire and crashed into the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board.
After the crash, some federal officials branded the FAA with a harsh nickname.
They called it the “tombstone agency,” and decried it as an unwieldy bureaucracy that was slow to crack down unless spurred by disaster.
Today, little has changed.
Again and again in the past 20 years, auditors for the U.S. Department of Transportation have chronicled the FAA’s struggles to police the airline industry, pointing to staffing problems and a failure to analyze key data.
The FAA’s dealings with Allegiant Air — a low-cost carrier run by a founder of ValuJet — are a case study in those struggles.
A Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of pages of federal records shows that the FAA levied no fines and took no other enforcement action against Allegiant despite dozens of midair breakdowns in 2015.
The FAA has broad powers to ensure airlines are operating safely, including the ability to issue fines, ground air carriers and launch sweeping investigations.
But the agency took none of those actions in response to Allegiant’s mechanical problems last year, even as the airline’s planes were breaking down at the highest rate of any major U.S. carrier.
It didn’t fine Allegiant or subject the airline to stepped-up monitoring after preventable maintenance errors by Allegiant contractors nearly led to a serious accident in Las Vegas in August 2015.
And FAA inspectors didn’t even interview a pilot who was fired for ordering the evacuation of a plane in St. Petersburg in June 2015, even though such firings can be a signal of a corporate culture in need of scrutiny.
Responding to the Times’ findings, the FAA declined to address any incident specifically.
Instead, an FAA spokeswoman emailed a statement to reporters saying the agency works hard to ensure air travel is safe.
“U.S. airlines have safely transported more than five billion passengers, two thirds of the world’s population, over the past eight years without a life lost, and that is no coincidence,” the statement said. “It is as a result of an unprecedented collaboration between industry, labor and the FAA to share critical safety data.”
In interviews with the Times in October, Allegiant officials said the FAA is constantly monitoring the airline and that the company works to have a good relationship with the agency.
“Ask the question: why is the industry so safe in the U.S.?” Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said. “You've seen the culmination of the safety programs that the FAA has really pushed, which was spot-on, as far as we’re concerned.”
But a review of more than 5,000 pages of audit reports by the federal transportation department’s inspector general showed breakdowns in the FAA’s monitoring of airlines.
One lesson the FAA drew from the ValuJet crash was that inspectors needed a better way of keeping tabs on how airlines operate. The agency pledged to use data to focus attention where it was needed most: on trends within airlines that hinted at possible future safety problems.
The FAA poured more than 15 years and tens of millions of dollars into building such a data system but never got it to work properly. The agency replaced it two years ago.
Now the agency uses an approach that, according to eight former FAA employees interviewed for this story, amounts to allowing the airlines to police themselves.
The U.S. airline industry is widely seen as operating one of the safest systems of air travel in the world. There have been no fatal crashes of U.S. passenger jets since 2009.
But former federal officials interviewed by the Times said the system is pressing its luck by essentially allowing airlines to self-regulate.
They added that monitoring the politically powerful airline industry is often a frustrating job.
They said it’s fraught with the dangers of angering company executives, who complain to members of Congress, who complain to FAA administrators, who discourage or even punish diligent regulators.
“Probably one of the best things going right now is we haven’t had any accidents. And that’s great for the flying public, but it’s not through anything the FAA has done,” said Edward Jeszka, a whistleblower who spent 12 years as an FAA inspector. “That’s just the luck of the draw. Because there have been so many near misses, close calls, engine failures.”
The FAA’s passive approach was on display during a chain of events involving Allegiant in the past three years.
In September 2013, FAA inspectors found Allegiant’s maintenance programs were deficient, among other things.
Records obtained by the Times show the FAA said it would bar Allegiant from adding routes, buying new planes or growing in other ways until the company corrected the problems.
Allegiant agreed. The FAA took no enforcement action.
In December 2013, an Allegiant MD-88 went to Oklahoma City for an overhaul from the airline’s main maintenance contractor. Before it was finished, a worker signed off on an engine inspection without noticing that a key part — a cotter pin — was missing from the fuel delivery system.
A day after the plane went back in service, it took off from Fargo, N.D., loaded with passengers. It was in the air only a few moments before the right engine, flooded with fuel, started revving uncontrollably. The pilot had to shut it down and make an emergency landing back at the airport.
The contractor, AAR Corp., reported the mistake to the FAA. The agency allowed Allegiant and AAR to do their own review of the incident, records show.
Allegiant promised not to let the offending AAR employee sign off on future Allegiant repairs. The FAA was satisfied with the company’s response. It issued no fines and took no other enforcement action against the airline or the contractor.
In May 2015, an Allegiant MD-83 was getting an overhaul by AAR when another worker signed off on a tail repair. He didn’t notice that, once again, a cotter pin was missing from a rod that connects the tail to the pilot’s flight controls.
In the course of the next 261 flights, during which the plane carried tens of thousands of passengers, the tail rod slowly worked its way loose until, on Aug. 17, 2015, it jammed in a steep climb position as the plane was roaring toward take off in Las Vegas. A hundred and sixty-four people were on board.
Feeling the nose of the jet pressing up hard, unable to force it back down, the pilots slammed on the brakes at more than 100 mph.
Lori Miller remembers the panic in the cabin as she and the other passengers were pitched forward in their seats. “People were screaming,” Miller said. “And you could smell something hot in the cabin. I was thinking, ‘This plane is going to catch on fire, the way it smelled.’ ”
Nobody was hurt. But the captain later reported to a federal aviation safety tracking system that, “had the aircraft become airborne, a serious accident would have resulted.”
That night, federal records show, an Allegiant manager sent a text message to an FAA inspector responsible for overseeing the airline, alerting him to the problem.
The FAA and Allegiant both reviewed the plane’s maintenance records and concluded the contractor was responsible. In response AAR, said it would require an additional inspector to sign off on repairs of critical parts. Satisfied with AAR’s response, the FAA inspector closed out the case.
That was the full extent of the federal investigation. The FAA issued no fines and took no other action.
A spokeswoman for AAR declined to comment for this story. The company still is Allegiant’s main maintenance contractor today.
‘A million red flags’
Those weren’t the only examples in recent years of the FAA’s lenient approach.The Times identified a handful of other incidents that could have prompted action by the FAA but did not.
At least 12 times in 2015, Allegiant had three or more flights end in mechanical breakdowns in a single week. During a single four-day period in June, the airline had 10 flights end in unexpected landings caused by mechanical failures.
“That is like a million red flags going up, and nobody doing anything,” said Richard Wyeroski, a former FAA inspector who turned whistleblower. “The FAA is reactive. They react after the accident. They don’t stop it.”
The FAA has struggled with turnover in the office that oversees Allegiant for at least the past three years. But a particular staffing change should have raised a different sort of flag, said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistleblower advocate group.
In May 2015, John Tutora, who had served as interim inspector in charge of monitoring Allegiant’s maintenance programs, retired from the FAA. Then he immediately went to work for Allegiant as manager of “regulatory compliance.”
Devine said the situation points to a larger problem with the agency.
He said “revolving door appointments” can lead to inspectors going easy on the companies they police either because they don’t want to anger prospective employers or because former colleagues are intervening with them on the companies’ behalf.
In a phone interview with the Times, Tutora said there was nothing improper about his hiring. He said he only oversaw Allegiant for about nine months, while temporarily filling a vacancy left by an inspector who had retired.
He said that, before retiring, he met with an FAA ethics officer who told him he was free to work for Allegiant so long as he remained behind the scenes and didn’t represent the company in dealings with the FAA.
“And that’s what I did. I worked in the background, I never attended any of the meetings with the FAA, never had an influence or anything like that,” Tutora said. “They didn’t hire me to try to make deals with anybody or do anything disingenuous.”
He said his job consisted of managing how the company’s maintenance side reacted internally to requests and communications from the FAA. He added that Allegiant’s maintenance operations were as sound as any airline’s he had ever come into contact with.
“These guys are passionate in the maintenance and engineering branches about safety, mitigating risk and not doing anything stupid like cutting corners or doing anything that would possibly harm the company, or anybody in it, or outside of it,” said Tutora, who retired from Allegiant in April.
The firing of an Allegiant captain in July 2015 marked another hands-off moment for the FAA.
Six weeks earlier, Jason Kinzer had been piloting a flight from St. Petersburg to Hagerstown, Md., when flight attendants reported smelling smoke in the cabin. He circled back to St. Petersburg and, believing passengers and crew were potentially in danger, ordered them off the plane. Eight people were hurt in the scramble that ensued.
Allegiant fired Kinzer for ordering “an evacuation that was entirely unwarranted,” according to a copy of the termination letter obtained by the Times.
“Furthermore, during a review of the event and in subsequent conversations you have repeatedly insisted that you made a good decision to evacuate the aircraft, and, if faced with a similar situation, you would follow the same course of action,” the letter continued. “It is for these reasons that your employment with Allegiant is terminated effective immediately.”
That firing should have drawn FAA scrutiny, said Loretta Alkalay, an aviation attorney who spent 30 years as a regional counsel prosecuting enforcement cases for the FAA.
She said thorough federal inspectors would have at a minimum interviewed the pilot and his coworkers.
Kinzer told the Times last month that no one from the FAA has contacted him.
He sued Allegiant over his firing in November 2015. His lawsuit still is pending in Nevada.
Consultant fills void
In April, amid mounting publicity, the FAA began a review of Allegiant’s operations that originally wasn’t scheduled to happen for another two years.
It gave the airline more than a month’s notice. By the time the FAA began the review, Allegiant already had tapped a former top FAA official who could help guide them through the process.
Against a backdrop in which the FAA rarely cracks down, and airlines want to avoid accidents at all costs, consultants like Nick Sabatini play a key role in getting airlines to make their operations safer.
After spending about 18 years as a New York City police officer, Sabatini joined the FAA in 1978. He rose to associate administrator for aviation safety, a top official in charge of regulating airlines. He was still in that position in 2008, when a scandal broke involving Sabatini’s section of the FAA.
A safety inspector monitoring Southwest Airlines discovered the carrier was operating dozens of planes that were overdue for safety inspections, including at least one that had a potentially dangerous crack in its fuselage. But when he reported his findings to his supervisor, the supervisor allowed Southwest to keep the planes flying — even though the problems were uncorrected.
The inspector turned whistleblower, focusing attention on what he termed Southwest’s widespread noncompliance with federal rules. The allegations prompted outrage and congressional hearings.
At the height of the scandal, Sabatini testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying he was “outraged” at what had occurred. He added that the FAA did not require safety inspectors to operate in a way that formed excessively close relationships with airlines.
Three of the committee’s members later alleged that statement was misleading.
He retired less than a year later. But records show he wasn’t out of the aviation business for long.
Sabatini, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, incorporated a consulting firm in 2009 and immediately starting working for airlines and other businesses that potentially were in trouble with aviation authorities.
He led a meticulous internal review for Colgan Air after a plane operated by the regional carrier crashed in February 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 aboard.
He was called in after an Air France flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, killing 228.
The Reno Air Racing Association hired him after a World War II fighter plane crashed into a crowd gathered at a Nevada air show in 2011, killing 11 and wounding 66.
In 2013, he went to work for Allegiant Air.
After the FAA inspections that year, Allegiant executives hired Sabatini to review the airline’s operations.
In an interview, Allegiant’s leaders told the Times he assembled a team of former FAA employees to study how Allegiant ran its airline.
They said his team reviewed Allegiant’s practices and made suggestions for improving communication among the company’s departments. He also evaluated its staffing levels and recommended they invest more money in their operations.
They said he returned in 2015 to check on the company’s progress.
Then, as the FAA was beginning its latest examination of Allegiant in April, the airline brought him back.
Allegiant officials declined to describe what Sabatini’s team found during that visit, other than to say he identified more ways that Allegiant could improve and the company was putting them into practice.
The FAA cited Allegiant for only minor problems.
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