US ultra-LCC Allegiant Air is pushing back hard against new allegations that it runs an unsafe airline, pointing to changes aimed at improving its operations as evidence.

“I am outraged and astounded by the irresponsible, grossly misleading story aired by CBS 60 Minutes,” Allegiant VP-operations Eric Gust said in a statement posted by the airline. “The story is outdated, bears no resemblance to the Allegiant I know, and shows a real troubling misunderstanding of the FAA’s rigorous oversight of Allegiant and all US airlines.”

The 60 Minutes televised piece, released April 15, built on stories published in late 2016 by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida. In them, the airline’s operational performance is questioned, backed by evidence—citing FAA service difficulty reports and other documents—of an unusually high number of in-service incidents and maintenance problems.

By then, however, both the airline and FAA were moving to address issues with the Las Vegas-based carrier’s operations. The agency in 2015 “heightened [its] oversight of Allegiant while it was experiencing pilot labor issues,” FAA explains in a letter provided to CBS. The carrier and its pilots, represented by the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, agreed to a contract in July 2016. The agreement included “participation in critical FAA safety programs”—something the pilots prioritized during talks.

In early 2016, FAA opted to conduct Allegiant's next Certificate Holder Evaluation Process (CHEP) immediately, instead of waiting until its scheduled 2018 date. A CHEP, done every five years on airlines and repair stations in addition to routine audits, is a top-to-bottom review on an operator’s system to ensure it is complying with federal regulations, and identifies any risk areas.

Among the notable in-service incidents leading up to FAA’s CHEP decision: an aborted takeoff Aug. 17, 2015 involving an MD-83 at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. Allegiant maintenance personnel discovered a missing cotter pin on an elevator power boost cylinder, a key flight control component. The missing pin allowed a nut to work free, which limited the left elevator’s travel and caused the aircraft’s nose to lift off un-commanded during the takeoff roll.

On discovering the missing pin, Allegiant self-disclosed a possible regulatory violation, and FAA opened an investigation. FAA’s probe determined that the pin was not installed during a May 2015 overhaul by AAR Corp. FAA cited AAR for failing to comply with Allegiant’s maintenance program and its own quality control manual. Allegiant contributed to the incident by not meeting its regulatory requirement of supervising all work done on its behalf. 

FAA’s 11-week CHEP evaluation, completed in June 2016, found a number of “procedural issues” and “minor discrepancies” in the carrier’s operation, “but did not find any systemic or regulator problems,” the agency said. Allegiant “addressed” the issues, FAA said, characterizing them as “not uncommon to discover” during airline audits.

FAA data show that Allegiant’s rate of reported events per 1,000 departures for the six months ended March 31 was less than half of the reported rate in fiscal 2015. Events include diversions, emergency landings, and passenger disturbances.

Among the allegations in the 60 Minutes and Tampa Bay Times reports: Allegiant’s front-line staff is discouraged from reporting incidents or, in extreme cases, taking action—such as diverting a flight—that might be a prudent safety decision that costs the airline money. A statement distributed by the airline and attributed to Allegiant pilot Steven Allen, elected by his colleagues to serve as chairman of their executive council in 2017, refutes this.

“Throughout that year, I worked closely with the company’s operations and labor relations leadership,” Allen said. “If I was ever made aware of any issues, I always felt comfortable bringing them forth for open discussion with the group, even if it was something we might disagree on. I can confidently say that our culture of safety continued to move in a positive direction, and that remains true today.”

Sean Broderick, sean.broderick@informa.com