Are Allegiant Airlines and Southwest Airlines safe? Bottom line — yes.
If there was ever a bad week for airline safety, the combination of the 60 Minutes TV piece on Allegiant Airlines Safety, questioning its maintenance and safety culture together with the inflight aircraft engine disintegration on Southwest Flight 1380 and the subsequent death of a passenger, the first on a US airline since 2009, certainly ranks up there for potential airline PR disaster.
Travelers United had just finished top-level meetings with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with the top consumer groups in the US. During that meeting, we discussed our questions about the system of offshore repair and maintenance operations that almost all US airlines use and lack of uniform inspections of offshore operations and the domestic inspection of repair stations.
Those airline safety concerns are well-founded and have been debated for years. However, so far, the FAA has not taken any action on these questions other than by studying them. Of course, airlines love that kind of response. It means that it is business as usual until there are conclusions from the studies.
The FAA/Consumer Groups meeting took place the day after the Allegiant 60 Minutes airline safety exposé and the day before the Southwest Airlines incident. The official Travelers United statement, which I released, noted that this was a random accident and that the airlines and the FAA were taking immediate action to correct any other possible problems. Travelers United also praised the Southwest culture of putting passengers first and predicted no long-term effects from this incident on Southwest traffic. However, Travelers United did focus on FAA inaction on inspections.
Another focus for Travelers United was on the FAA airline safety program of compliance philosophy. The organization warned that having such a collaborative safety system was both good and bad. Airlines need hard rules to follow. On the other hand, those same airlines should not be unduly penalized for reporting operational problems. After all, the airlines are the very organizations that have the most experience with engines, airframes, and avionics. Their collaboration is needed, but there should be hard and fast rules as well.
A blog post by a fellow airline columnist, Brett Snyder, in his blog Cranky Flier, noted significant problems with the 60 Minute TV reporting.
How awful was it? Pretty awful. If you watched the piece, you know that John Goglia was one of the primary experts used to prove that Allegiant is unsafe. But what 60 Minutes failed to disclose is that he’s an expert witness being paid to testify against Allegiant in a case that’s just about to begin, a case that was referenced in the piece itself. Not disclosing that is downright irresponsible, and it cast a shadow on everything else. After digging in, I realized that was just the most prominent of many problems in the report.
Another referenced airline expert, Courtney Miller, writing in VisualApproach.io, did an analysis of the 60 Minute piece. His results show cherry-picked statistics. There is actually a downward trajectory to reported problems at Allegiant. And the airline has fewer issues than the airlines that 60 Minutes mentioned — Delta, United, American, Spirit, and Jetblue. The facts show just about the opposite results of the 60 Minute claims.
Here is more from the visualapproach.io story:
At the core of the 60 Minutes investigation is the assertion that Allegiant is not safe. The report bases this assertion on the Service Difficulty Reports, but also from anecdotes of engine failures and evacuations reinforced by emotional interviews with passengers on those specific flights. It is important to point out that every airline has reported engine fires/failures, smoke in the cabin, aborted takeoffs, and evacuations. Last week’s tragic engine failure on the Southwest flight is a great example of how things happen even to the safest of airlines, and Southwest’s safety record is widely regarded as excellent. Separating the individual anecdote from overall trend and context is critical; it is why Southwest is not and should not be considered an unsafe airline, and is also why Allegiant is not and should not be considered an unsafe airline.
Something happened during 2014 and 2016 to increase their serious incident rates. It was a concern (emphasis on the past tense), however at no point was Allegiant the highest in serious incident rates, let alone “unsafe”. In fact, in this author’s opinion, all airlines in the U.S. are safe airlines, including those with higher incident rates than Allegiant which were omitted from the 60 Minutes report. This in no way excuses Allegiant from the maintenance challenges they saw between 2014 and 2016. It is also worth nothing that this was during a period of intense pilot negotiations that resulted in lawsuits, restraining orders, and a questionable termination of a pilot who ordered an evacuation following an engine failure (again, the need for context is required before pitch forks and torches are raised). But, the correlation between the elevated incident rates and pilot negotiations is just that — a correlation, and not causation. It is Allegiant’s responsibility to ensure they are operating a safe airline regardless of other events that may be happening at the airline. Allegiant has done this, reducing their serious incident rate by 70 percent since its peak; a peak that was never the highest in the country.
The bottom line: By looking at overall FAA data, Allegiant Airlines is now considered one of the safest airlines in the US and has never been the worst airline in terms of in-flight incidents. And, Southwest Airlines is legendary in its attention to detail and aircraft maintenance. Both are safe airlines.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.