When Allegiant Airlines evacuated flight 864 a year and a half ago after reports of smoke in the cabin, passenger Joan Morin was pushed down an emergency exit slide.
“He said, ‘This is an evacuation. Everybody evacuate,” Morin remembers. “‘Evacuate’ didn’t even register. I’ve never evacuated.”
She’d never heard of the low-cost carrier when she booked a flight from St. Petersburg, FL to Hagerstown, MD to see her daughter.
“Narrow, I mean narrow little pad going down, and all you’re thinking about is your head hitting the cement,” she said.
First Coast News obtained a year’s worth of Allegiant records from the Federal Aviation Administration detailing maintenance issues and emergency landings.
We found at least 54 times in 2016, a plane turned back to its airport or was diverted mid-flight because of a mechanical failure. Records detail landing gear not retracting after takeoff, electrical burning smells in cabins, and autopilot failures.
“That is too high. We want it always to be lower,” said Jude Brinker, the airline’s Chief Operating Officer.
During an interview at the airline’s training center in Las Vegas, NV, Brinker said Allegiant’s diversion rate is higher than industry giants Delta and American.
He calls 2016 an improvement from 2015, when the evacuation of Morin’s flight started a wave of negative stories about the airline. Most notably, the Tampa Bay Times used 2015 numbers to report Allegiant’s planes were four times more likely to fail during flight compared to other major US carriers.
“That number is not the case today,” Brinker said.
Three different aviation experts interviewed by First Coast News attribute many of the mechanical issues to one of the planes Allegiant flies, the same kind Joan Morin was aboard.
It’s called an MD-80. Most of Allegiant’s were manufactured in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The older model is cheap to buy and makes up more than half of the airline’s fleet.
Allegiant’s Service Difficulty Reports, filed with the FAA, show 30 percent of its fleet had 4 or more safety issues last year. Most of those issues happened with the older MD-80 aircraft.
The airline says that number mis-represents its planes.
It says out of the 30 percent, only half of the reported maintenance issues actually affected passengers.
Allegiant’s most problem-prone planes had cracks in wings and the fuselage, irregular cabin pressure, malfunctioning engines and lost navigation capabilities.
“We require more mechanics, more spare parts, and more aircraft as spares to continue operating,” Brinker said.
The FAA requires airlines to self report issues with their aircraft.
Compared to other low-cost carriers, Allegiant’s planes in the middle of the pack when comparing the service difficulty reports.
The FAA says they use those and many other reports to detect trends and mitigate risk with all airlines. With Allegiant, they’ve added FAA inspector resources and help evaluate their operations.
“As long as the FAA signs off on them, that’s really all we can be concerned about,” said Jacksonville Aviation Authority CEO Steve Grossman.
At Jacksonville International Airport, Allegiant has grown from 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the airport’s traffic.
“We really don’t have a right to say ‘No’. We have to allow carriers in in a non-discriminatory way. So, if a carrier wants to come in here, as long as they meet our rules and regulations, we have to let them in and we do not have the right to regulate how they do maintenance, what they do on maintenance. That’s the federal government’s role,” Grossman said.
As Allegiant continued to report problems last year, the FAA moved up a regularly scheduled audit.
The FAA released a Certificate Holder Evaluation Process report where inspectors said they “identified several element design and element performance deficiencies.” Inspectors reported problems with crew training and emergency drills, missing signatures on flight documents, and failures of protocol.
“These experts don’t just walk in and look around. They’ve got well documented procedures of everything they’re supposed to look for,” said Keith Mackey, a pilot and expert witness in aviation court cases.
Mackey says only a few US carriers, mainly American and Delta, still fly the aged plane Allegiant does.
“Parts are getting harder to find because not many airlines are operating them any longer,” he said.
During it’s review, the FAA spent 3 months with Allegiant.
“The outcome of it sort of proved our point which is, yea, we have some reliability issues we need to improve on but we’re a safe airline,” Allegiant COO Brinker said.
At the airlines training facility in Las Vegas, pilots are learning to fly a new Airbus aircraft.
Allegiant is building a duplicate training center in Sanford, FL, outside of Orlando, where East Coast pilots will train on the new plane. The Airbus will replace the MD-80 fleet wide by 2019. The new planes won’t initially be common for Jacksonville flights.
“Given that we don’t have control over the quality of a carrier, we’ll take all comers,” Grossman said.
As the airport chief, he considers the airline a good business partner for the city, even among the documented reliability concerns. He says the airline flies full planes to destinations not served by other main carriers at the airport, like Cincinnati and Pittsburg.
“My legs were up in the air, you’re all turned around, my totes on this shoulder, my body is going this way, and it was a complete mess,” Morin said of her 2015 evacuation. She didn’t know about the history of Allegiant’s maintenance failures.
Now, she says she’s dealing with medical problems and has to walk with a cane. Her attorney, Bob Spohrer, says he doesn’t expect a lawsuit but believes his client Joan Morin is entitled to restitution for her injuries.
“We are having a conversation with the insurance carrier for Allegaint Airlines. My prediction is a lawsuit is not going to be necessary,” he said.
No matter what happens, she says she’ll never fly the low cost carrier again.
“Never,” Morin said. “It could be free. It’s not worth it.”