Reprinted from the April 21 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
If the Federal Aviation Administration were a business, its stock would have tanked right along with that of Allegiant Air after a blistering “60 Minutes” exposé on a history of safety problems federal inspectors appeared to have overlooked. The nation saw the horrors that can result from apparently lax vigilance after an engine explosion aboard a Southwest Airlines flight last week resulted in a passenger’s death.
The Southwest accident is under investigation. The FAA says it vigilantly monitors safety efforts at all airlines and had found nothing alarming at Allegiant.
Allegiant’s safety record indicates otherwise. It matters to St. Louis-area residents because Allegiant is the only passenger airline serving MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, about 25 miles from downtown St. Louis. It does not operate at Lambert airport.
The “60 Minutes” report, following a seven-month investigation, was a sobering portrait of the Las Vegas-based budget airline. It detailed how Allegiant is nearly 3.5 times more likely to have a midair breakdown than similar airlines. Between January 2016 and October 2017, Allegiant aircraft had more than 100 serious mechanical failures, including midair engine breakdowns, aborted takeoffs, rapid descents and flight control malfunctions.
The FAA raised few concerns as the safety problems mounted. Vigorous enforcement of safety issues is the only way to ensure passenger safety. The FAA’s job is to be the enforcer, not the airlines’ friend.
Allegiant has never had a fatal accident, but transportation safety experts told “60 Minutes” they wouldn’t fly with the carrier. An airline pilots’ representative said some Allegiant pilots and maintenance workers claim the carrier has discouraged them from reporting problems and mechanical deficiencies.
The FAA’s lack of intervention appears to be rooted in a 2015 policy change. The agency switched from actively enforcing safety rules with fines, letters and sanctions to working quietly with airlines behind the scenes to fix problems.
The FAA’s website calls it a “compliance philosophy” that embraces a “just culture.” The 2015 change put an emphasis on carriers’ self-disclosure of errors and allowed for “due consideration of honest mistakes.” But it emphasized that underlying safety concerns had to be fixed.
Allegiant called the “60 Minutes” report “a false narrative” that showed “a fundamental misunderstanding of FAA compliance practice and history.”
Most of the problems occurred with the carrier’s fleet of old McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jets, which Allegiant said will be retired by the end of the year. The FAA said it was satisfied with Allegiant’s actions to remedy its mechanical problems.
Three Democratic senators have requested a Transportation Department investigation into how the FAA handled safety concerns at Allegiant. The traveling public badly needs reassurance — especially after the Southwest tragedy — that FAA inspectors are doing their jobs and making sure the airlines don’t even think of throttling back on compliance.