Is Low Cost Carrier Allegiant Unsafe to Fly?

Allegiant is an ultra low cost carrier with a bit of a different business model than Spirit or Frontier. They take Hall of Fame right fielder Wee Willie Keeler’s admonition to “hit ’em where they ain’t” seriously. If you need to fly from Mesa, Arizona to Pasco, Washington at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday they’re your airline. They’re cheap and they fly non-daily leisure routes no one else does.

60 Minutes ran a segment last night airing safety allegations about the airline. It didn’t really cover any new ground, but brought well-reported stories from a year and a half ago to a broader national audience. The key takeaway is that Allegiant is four times more likely to have in-flight emergencies than other airlines.

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.

Here’s the CBS segment:

The FAA has investigated incidents, and some issues have been blamed on AAR Air Services as their maintenance provider, while continuing to believe that the airline itself is safe. Those investigations have taken place both under the current and previous administration.

Although Allegiant has consistently had higher operating margins than most other airlines, diverting airplanes is not a profit maximizing strategy. They do operate older MD80s more prone to problems, although they’re replacing that fleet with newer used Airbus narrowbodies and with new planes. All of the reported issues have been with their MD80s. They’re down to 32 MD80s out of 100 planes, and every one is expected to be out of their fleet by the end of the year. (American Airlines is retiring its MD80 fleet as well.)

Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

Allegiant has had more maintenance issues than other airlines. Although an MD83 overran a runway last week it’s their only incident of the year so far recorded by The Aviation Herald. There were fewer issues in 2017 than in 2016. The FAA though may be pressured to act differently by media, but I’m not convinced by CBS that the FAA is falling down on the job.

60 Minutes suggests aviation insiders don’t fly the airline, and that’s true — but they aren’t the target demographic anyway. I’d avoid MD80 flights over reliability issues, but already two-thirds of the fleet are Airbus A319s and A320s and those haven’t seemed to have problems. I still don’t want to fly Allegiant because of their business model not their safety.

Here’s an Allegiant plane battling strong crosswinds in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as Hurricane Irma has been downgraded to a Tropical Storm.

I don’t think, as One Mile at a Time says, “It’s clear Allegiant cuts corners with maintenance” and I don’t think it’s fair to say “this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that Allegiant’s CEO used to work for ValuJet” since he founded WestAir, which served as a United Express operator, and he was an investor in and board member of ValuJet — which after its terrible 1996 accident became AirTran which was acquired by Southwest.

I’m not going to offer a judgment on Allegiant’s historical maintenance program. They’ve had incidents and there are people with an axe to grind who say the issue is safety. Even pilots made that charge during protracted contract negotiations, which is unusual in the industry, but those same pilots were willing to keep flying those same planes. The incidents are getting far less frequent as the carrier renews its fleet. All I’m suggesting is that the level of hysteria in the 60 Minutes report isn’t enough to convince me that the FAA is falling down on the job, and regular readers may know I’m predisposed to believe that regulators fail.

(HT: Jonathan W.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That’s a fair & balanced analysis of the CBS report which with this additional context, makes their story seem sensationalist.

    I flew Allegiant once and survived. FLL-JQF was $110 with an upgraded seat when DL wanted close to $350 and even a hidden city on AA was $150.

  2. MD80’s are fine … those that were originally delivered to Delta and maintained by Delta’s world class Tech Ops from Day 1 make up a significant portion of a very reliable airline in Delta. Allegiant’s problem is buying used MD80’s from the third world and doing the bare minimum maintenance.

  3. I have never flown Allegiance nor do I ever think I will. Having said that it appears the issues at hand were directly related to the old MD-80 aircraft and their age versus maintenance costs. They just flew them longer than they should have. Given AB financing I am surprised they were not in the fleet sooner.

    Certainly the FAA has some well deserved blame here. I think a full investigation by the FAA is warranted and the sooner the better.

    Now what happens with maintenance on the new birds ?

    Final note why would any of the pilots be worried about being fired hell there is such a shortage of pilots they could get more pay, better metal to fly without worrying about the crap at Allegiance.

  4. I did find somewhat concerning the report of the pilot being fired for doing an unnecessary evacuation. Maybe the evacuation *was* unnecessary, but if he ordered it in good faith and was simply overly precautious, it seems like more training, not termination, is the appropriate response.

    Gary doesn’t address that incident in his comments above. And the FAA didn’t seem to have a good response; they hadn’t investigate that incident previously and it seems like they ought to at least explicitly commit to look into it now that it’s been brought to their attention.

    Personally I was left with the impression from the 60 Minutes report that there really was an issue with their MD-80 subfleet. Otherwise it didn’t seem like much of a problem — 60 Minutes acknowledged at the end that incidents have gone down as they’ve retired MD-80s. But there is still some concerns about whether they have a good safety culture, particularly in light of the pilot firing. If you have a lot of problems with a particular aircraft type, maybe people start to cut corners and that becomes ingrained.

  5. Re the pilot being fired. Please note — as 60 Minutes only touched upon — that airport ground personnel said NOT to evacuate. The pilot apparently ignored that order. The ground personnel MAY have known something (movement of equipment, etc) that pilot could not see from his perch.

  6. I’ve flown Allegiant probably a dozen times. I live in one of those “secondary markets” with limited options for flying. It’s hard to turn down the non-stop, discounted flights. My expectations are low– I know that they nickel and dime you for everything. They charge significantly more for bags at the airport versus when you book, and they have a 40 lb weight limit on checked bags. Their “customer service” is terrible. I recall needing to call them once (can’t remember why) and was on hold for literally an hour before speaking to someone. And yes, many of their planes are outdated.

    I watched the 60 minutes report and as others have said, what concerned me the most is the culture they have created (particularly with pilots) to avoid reporting problems. That’s scary. So was the response from the FAA. I came away from the interview with the belief that the FAA will only investigate a problem if there is a catastrophic incident. As someone else mentioned, I think there needs to be a lot of follow up with the role (or lack thereof) of the FAA.

  7. The real issue is the lack of a safety culture at the airline, and the punishment for reporting and responding to safety incidents.

  8. @Jack

    “The pilot apparently ignored that order”.

    This is actually really tricky. The captain is in command of his/her aircraft, and I would presume that command authority is retained until the flight is deplaned. It’s not generally accepted (AFAIK) that even EMS/ARFF has any authority to tell the captain to not deplane.

    Not knowing anything about the situation, I’m only pointing out that “the pilot apparently ignored the order” is really a mischarachterization. That language assumes ground personnel have authority in that situation, and it’s not clear to me that they do.

  9. Gary, did you forget the famous Fargo incident?
    There are clear, endemic issues. Why else would they not be interviewed? And decreases in safety reporting is a dangerous sign pointing to intimidation from reporting which is the most dangerous possible situation there is. You want to know what is going wrong to fix it from happening elsewhere and if people are scared to report, you have a major issue.

  10. I live in Asheville, NC, and Allegiant is one of the airlines that services AVL. I have never flown Allegiant, and after watching that 60 Minutes segment last night, I never will.

  11. The maintenance issues are the problem and the reason why nobody should fly this airline. The fact that the FAA is looking the other way just makes it all the more important that people stay out of these planes. Their leader was once the head of ValuJet. Did he know or approve of what caused the Everglades crash? Nobody has ever said that Allegiant is or has taken steps to correct the maintenance problems.. I prefer not to risk my life or the lives of those I love on an Airline whose leaders show such blatant disregard for the safety of its passengers and crews.

  12. I hope the Trumpanzees see the FAA chief their orange baboon has installed. It will be their 500 pound lardazzes who fall out of the skies because good government is being replaced by cronies and ugly ferret-faced bullies who think they are above media scrutiny like their waddling tub-butt piss freak boss.

    This is what redneck baboons do to America when they are played to vote against their own interests and instead only vote their prejudices and substitute-penis guns. They gave us Bush who ruined our reputation permanently in the world and unleashed endless terrorism. Now this. Those of us who escaped hick areas years ago can tell you they’re not finished until they destroy modernity completely because of how it offends them. You better outvote them soon or you’re in a country that’s going to crash like an unmaintained third-world 40 year old MD80.

  13. Only attempted to fly Allegiant once. Allegiant was the only airline that offered nonstop service to my destination. Two weeks before the departure date the airline decided to discontinue service to my destination city. They cancelled my reservation and refunded the entire ticket price. However, now, with less than 2 weeks till the departure date, I had to scramble to find another flight option. Since I was booking with very little notice, I now had to pay quite a bit more on another carrier. Plus the timing of the other carriers (which required a connection) now required me to fly the day before and also pay for a hotel room in order to meet my appointment time. What a mess! Would never even consider Allegiant ever again. If traveling and you really need to be some where on a specific date at a specific time, use one of the major airlines that you can count on.

  14. Every time i hear valujet I think of the crocodiles eating their passengers after the crash into the swamp
    You couldn’t pay me to get on Allegiant or Spirit

  15. Allegiant = no thanks.

    A) BIG safety questions.

    B) Their entire operating model is IRROPS.

    No chance I fly them.

  16. @Jack: The pilot in command is the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft.

    An “operation” begins when any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight , until all such persons have disembarked…”

  17. they just gave me my money back to credit card on a md-80 flight I had next month. No questions asked..

  18. @ Greg . . . . you have serious problems. Seek guidance to stick to the issues and to be more civil.
    BTW, the report was based on incidents that occurred primarily before 2016.

  19. Gary you are conflating apples and oranges.

    Apples: The 60 Minutes piece was based on FAA docs that took a FOIA request to get.

    Oranges: Gary you relied on what the Aviation Herald shows. While that’s an awesome site, it’s not based on FOIA docs.

    Side note: I have a friend that works for Boeing. He fixes AOG (airplane on ground, plane can’t fly due to mechanical defect). Allegiant is on his personal “no fly” list, along with Spirit, Frontier, Sun Country, Frontier, Asian LCCs, fUSSR carriers, and any African carrier not named South African Air.

  20. @ Trumpanzee Trippe: The FAA chief interviewed is from the fat Piss Freak’s administration. You Nazi bullies get no ground here whatsoever defending the most hated man on the planet. And I could care less what you think of my comments so save your breath for waddling.

  21. My buddy Mike flew Allegiant this Feb. from Cincy (CVG) to Punta Gorda FL. His plane was delayed for 5 hours, so he missed the Frankie Valli concert, which I attended alone. I had advised him weeks earlier to change to the flight to Orlando Sanford, but the change fee + fare difference was too much. They should have re-booked him onto it IMO at CVG.
    The ironic thing is that he’s a retired USAF Colonel & former professor of satellite design at the Academy in Colorado Springs. I should ask him if he noticed anything bad about his plane!

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