[Marxism] Pilots Fault Allegiant on Safety as Talks Stall
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 21 08:37:48 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 21 2015
Pilots Fault Allegiant on Safety as Talks Stall
By JAD MOUAWAD
For the last decade, Allegiant Air has built a thriving business buying
secondhand jets and connecting small cities to leisure destinations like
Las Vegas and Honolulu.
By keeping costs low, offering cheap fares and flying from places that
other carriers have neglected, like Fort Wayne, Ind., or Allentown, Pa.,
Allegiant has grown rapidly. Today, the airline has one of the highest
profit margins in the business and among the lowest costs.
But Allegiant’s scrappy success is now being questioned by its pilots,
who say they are worried about repeated mechanical problems with the
airline’s fleet of older planes, poor maintenance operations and a
culture where profits come before safety.
The conflict between the pilots and the airline’s chairman and chief
executive, Maurice J. Gallagher Jr., has become increasingly tense in
the last two years. Negotiations on a contract have stalled, and the
pilots recently threatened to strike.
It is not unusual for pilots to bring up safety and maintenance issues
during labor talks. To the airline, the complaints represent scare
tactics by the pilots’ union, driven by demands over benefits and work
Since it was founded in 1997, Allegiant has focused on reining in costs.
It subcontracts all but the most routine maintenance, for instance. It
also buys older planes, which keeps ownership costs down. Last year, the
company’s operating margin was about 14 percent, second only to that of
Spirit Airlines, which was 18 percent.
Traditional airlines generally post margins in the low single digits.
This low-cost model has also led to tensions with Allegiant’s work
force. The dispute with the pilots, for instance, began after they voted
for union representation two years ago.
It is playing out in United States District Court in Nevada, where
pilots contend that the airline has unlawfully scaled back their
benefits and tightened work rules and shut them out of voluntary safety
programs that are common at other carriers. Amid this simmering tension,
Allegiant pilots said they had identified at least 65 incidents from
September to March where flights were forced to divert to another
airport, return to the gate or abort a takeoff because of a mechanical
or an engine problem.
At least four times, engines shut down in flight, the pilots said. The
list of problems includes planes that lost their communications
equipment, hydraulic leaks, engines that failed to deliver sufficient
power, inoperative cockpit panel lights and pressurization problems,
One airplane had repeated problems, including the loss of cockpit
automation, before it was taken out of service for repairs.
All the claims were reported by the pilots and compiled by the Teamsters
Aviation Mechanics Coalition on behalf of the pilots’ union, the Airline
Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224.
Their report concluded that poorly trained mechanics, insufficient spare
parts and an aging fleet were “creating a dangerous paradigm that could
eventually lead to an accident resulting in serious injury and loss of
Allegiant’s pilots recently threatened to strike to force the company to
restore previous work rules. Union officials denied they were making the
safety accusations to gain leverage in negotiations. Some aviation
safety specialists said the number of issues should raise red flags at
the Federal Aviation Administration.
“For a small fleet, that’s an awful lot of problems,” said John Goglia,
a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “They are
running on the safety margin.”
Allegiant called the accusations “absurd.” Mechanics inspect its planes
every night, it said. The airline said it also had an analysis and
surveillance program, as well as a reliability program, to monitor the
fleet’s health and performance and shares its data with the Federal
“Neither Allegiant nor the F.A.A. have identified abnormal trends,” said
Jessica Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Allegiant.
Steve Harfst, the chief operating officer of the Allegiant Travel
Company, which owns the airline, said in a statement: “The safety of our
passengers and crew is, above all, our No. 1 priority. Allegiant has one
of the best safety records among passenger airlines in the world and
complies with all F.A.A. regulations.”
The F.A.A. did not address the specific issues raised by Allegiant’s
pilots, but said that the agency had increased surveillance while the
airline dealt with its labor issues.
The agency is “continuously monitoring, evaluating and providing
oversight of Allegiant Air to ensure the carrier is capable of meeting
its responsibility for safe operations,” said Laura J. Brown, a
spokeswoman for the F.A.A.
Federal regulators have already looked deeply into Allegiant’s
operations. In 2013, a routine F.A.A. inspection found problems with the
airline’s maintenance and training programs.
The inspection, which is known as an Air Carrier Evaluation Program, led
the F.A.A. to temporarily close the airline’s training programs for
pilots, mechanics and flight attendants and freeze new plane deliveries
until the problems were addressed. The results of the inspection have
not been made public.
Among the problems the F.A.A. found was that Allegiant’s airplane repair
program did not properly distinguish between “minor” and “major” repairs
and did not adequately track structural defects. The F.A.A. also said
Allegiant was “not effective in identifying systemic deficiencies” and
found problems with the training of pilots for Boeing 757s and Airbus A320s.
Most issues were resolved within six months, according to the agency.
Allegiant said that the F.A.A. found that a training manual needed to be
revised, but that there was never any question or concern regarding
training processes or pilot qualification.
John M. Cox, the chief executive of Safety Operating Solutions, and a
former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association, said tense
labor negotiations could often bring “rhetorical excesses” about safety.
In some cases, he said, airlines and pilots can benefit by bringing in
an outside auditor to review the facts and provide a dispassionate
analysis of events.
“Allegiant is pretty unique because they are ultralow cost,” Mr. Cox
said. “Older airplanes have more mechanical issues than newer ones. But
does that make them unsafe? Absolutely not. Allegiant has had a pretty
good track record.”
Union officials also assert that the airline has shut its pilots out of
several safety programs that are common at many airlines, including one
known as the Aviation Safety Action Program. Allegiant denies this,
saying it invited pilots to the monthly meeting of its flight operations
Allegiant, which is based in Las Vegas, operates a fleet of 70
airplanes, mostly McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, which have an average age of
22.2 years. Last year, it carried eight million passengers.
Mr. Gallagher, who is also Allegiant’s biggest shareholder, was one of
four co-founders of ValuJet. He left that airline in 1997, a year after
the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, when the airline merged with AirTran
and changed its name. It is now part of Southwest Airlines. Mr.
Gallagher declined to be interviewed.
Tom Haueter, the former director of aviation safety at the National
Transportation Safety Board, said the problems highlighted by Allegiant
pilots did not necessarily reflect a systemic problem with the company.
Pilots can over-report a problem, either out of an abundance of caution
or because they are seeking concessions from the airline, he said. That
can make the job of F.A.A. inspectors more difficult, he said.
“The truth sometimes lies in the middle,” Mr. Haueter said.
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