By NATHANIEL LASH, WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE AND ANTHONY CORMIER
Tampa Bay Times
Allegiant Air’s aircraft are four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other U.S. airlines, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times has found.
In 2015, Allegiant jets were forced to make unexpected landings at least 77 times for serious mechanical failures, the Times’ first-of-its kind analysis of federal aviation records shows.
None prompted enforcement action from the Federal Aviation Administration.
To create such a comparison, Times reporters built a database of more than 65,000 records from the FAA.
Working through the data, they 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.
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.
The FAA in April launched a three-month review of Allegiant’s maintenance, training and operations programs. The agency found problems with Allegiant’s maintenance paperwork, including a failure to report a mid-flight engine shutdown within a required time frame. But the FAA said nothing it discovered was severe enough to require a fine or other serious enforcement action.
Instead, the agency required Allegiant to file a plan for addressing the FAA’s findings. The airline submitted it in September, and the FAA accepted it — essentially giving Allegiant a clean bill of health.
“We were always a safe airline,” Allegiant’s chief operating officer, Jude Bricker, told the Associated Press on Sept. 30. “This gives credence to our claim.”
Plenty of people are rooting for Allegiant, including travelers who chafe at paying high airfares and officials in the out-of-the-way towns and smaller airports that Allegiant serves. Among them is Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, where the airline accounts for almost all passenger traffic. Allegiant offers service to Orlando, Fort Myers, Tampa and Myrtle Beach.
This year, Allegiant celebrated 10 years in service at the local airport.
Allegiant “has basically put us back on the map,” said Dan Dickten, director of aviation at the local airport.
“They made it easier for us to talk to other airlines. We like to say that we have shown our allegiance to Allegiant.”
Dickten said the local airport hasn’t experienced any emergencies with Allegiant planes.
“We haven’t had anything that’s been more than a precautionary [event],” Dickten said.
Dickten was told on Friday by Allegiant that the airline has put together an aggressive program to handle the issues with its aircraft, and he knows the airline is in the process of replacing its older aircraft.
“They aren’t the only airline that has issues, of course,” Dickten said.
Industry observers say there’s a reason most air travel is so expensive. It’s difficult to offer both great deals and spend the money needed for a reliable fleet.
When the Times first reached out to Allegiant officials for this story, they declined to speak with reporters. Then, after the newspaper presented them with its findings, they asked for a meeting. During five hours of interviews at the company’s Las Vegas headquarters and training center, they acknowledged their planes break down too often and said the airline is changing the way it operates.
“I can’t sit here and say that you’re wrong,” Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said. “We’re very much focused on running a better operation.”
To read the full story, go to tampabay.com/allegiant