Flying the deadly skies
Colgan Air Flight 3407, Asiana Airline Flight 214 and, most recently, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. They are all ingrained into history as fatal U.S. plane incidents that have occurred over the last decade.
The job of preventing these deadly incidents ultimately falls to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the watchdog of the airline industry in the United States that overlooks operations and enforces safety regulations.
However, the FAA has disregarded glaring red flags from the low-cost domestic airline Allegiant Air. On last Sunday’s 60 minutes report, correspondent Steve Kroft disclosed that Allegiant Air encountered more than 100 serious mechanical incidents, such as aborted takeoffs, emergency descents, mid-air engine failures and fumes in the cabin, from Jan. 1, 2016 to the end of last October.
With an issue of this size, the FAA surprisingly appeared indifferent. For example, Allegiant Flight 436 suddenly aborted the takeoff, because a critical flight component was missing, according to the FAA post-incident report. Yet, instead of executing safety measures or fining the airline, the FAA only issued a mild warning letter.
And it is this lack of responsibility and supervision from the federal agency that endangers the safety of cheap, profit-oriented airlines.
Since 2015, the FAA has relied on voluntary compliance from airlines as opposed to active enforcement with penalties to impose safety regulations. Although the new compliance philosophy can adequately address inadvertent accidents, it cannot effectively solve deliberate and consistent problems arising from airlines’ ignorance or recklessness. Just like how a supervisor might discipline an employee who repeatedly makes the same mistakes, the FAA must take the initiative to resolve the Allegiant planes’ mechanical and maintenance problems and emphasize that noncompliance will not be tolerated.
The FAA’s oversight is especially important in the free-market economy where profit reigns over safety. In 2015, Allegiant fired a pilot who evacuated the plane after smoke was reported in the cabins, because, as stated in the termination letter, the evacuation was “entirely unwarranted” and the pilot threatened the airline’s assets. The company’s action sends out the wrong message to other Allegiant pilots—one that says “don’t make an emergency landing if you do not see flames coming out of the cockpit.”
According to the executive director of flight standards John Duncan, the FAA did not investigate the pilot’s termination because “we haven’t been asked to investigate.” Nonetheless, the FAA should have scrutinized Allegiant’s underdeveloped safety culture and enacted strong enforcement action that ensures that pilots will report operational deficiencies and abide by safety procedures without fear of termination.
A step in the right direction all starts from the top of the bureaucratic ladder in the FAA. To effectively execute the agency’s job, its leaders must supervise all airlines comprehensively and take matters into their own hands when hazardous airlines disregard the passengers’ safety. Otherwise, low-profile airlines such as Allegiant can fly under the radar and put millions of passengers at risk.
In short, the FAA must treat Allegiant the same way it would treat the major airlines when they encounter incidents. Notably, the Southwest Airlines flight from New York to Dallas had an emergency landing on Tuesday due to engine failure, and the FAA ordered the inspection of the same type of jet engines on the next day. If the Allegiant incidents sparked as many preventive measures from the FAA, perhaps the small airline would not have 25 engine failures or malfunctions in less than two years.
In reality, price-sensitive passengers will still choose to fly on Allegiant and the airline will survive the 60-minutes report. On a positive note, we may gradually see improvements within the budget airline company in the near future. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has already sent a letter to the Department of Transportation calling for an investigation into the FAA’s enforcement actions with Allegiant in order to inform the public on the airline’s safety status.
With the truth behind one of America’s cheapest airlines out in the open, the traveling public may think twice before booking an Allegiant flight, and the FAA faces new pressure to take action against the Allegiant’s unsafe practices. The question now is, will they?