Allegiant MD-80 Las Vegas Nigel Howarth/Aviation Week

Allegiant Targeted MRO In System-Wide Improvement Effort

Carrier's shortcomings linked to aging MD-80s, inadequate procedures.

Allegiant Air has prioritized improvement of its maintenance operation in the last two years as part of a larger effort to address shortcomings identified by FAA that contributed to a spate of in-service incidents.

The carrier, which is under fire following a recent report from CBS's 60 Minutes television program that questions whether the airline puts enough emphasis on safety, has acknowledged problems in its operations. An August 2015 rejected takeoff at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport was linked to improper maintenance oversight, for instance. FAA discovered that an overhaul on an elevator component done by MRO provider AAR several months earlier didn't follow procedures, and a key part--a cotter pin--was not reinstalled. While FAA's report on the incident faulted AAR, the agency also cited Allegiant for failing to provide adequate oversight of its vendor.

That incident and many others--a 2016 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that Allegiant had about 80 maintenance-related disruptions in 2015--led FAA to step up surveillance and conduct a carrier-wide audit in early 2016, two years ahead of schedule. The audit, a Certificate Holder Evaluation Process (CHEP) done every five years on airlines and repair stations in addition to routine oversight, is a top-to-bottom review on an operator's system to ensure it is complying with regulations. Allegiant's CHEP, completed in June 2016, found numerous "procedural issues" and "minor discrepancies," including several in the maintenance arena. Among them: missing items from manuals and improper tracking of inventory. But, FAA emphasized, the review "did not find any systemic safety or regulatory problems," adding that Allegiant has addressed the minor findings.

FAA's CHEP findings reinforced the conclusions reached by a team of independent auditors brought in by the airline in 2015. Another issue brought to light by the audits: the airline's rapid expansion combined with its reliance on MD-80s pushing 30 years of age was creating major disruptions.

"To simplify a very complicated problem down to just one thing, we ran out of planes that weren't broken," Jude Bricker, former Allegiant COO, said in November 2016. "There were times where we would have upwards of 20 airplanes that were out of service at any given time."

Expansion wasn't coming off the table--the company grew available seat miles 18% in 2016 and 9% last year--so the airline took steps to improve its operation. It added more spare aircraft beginning with its 2016 peak summer season and consolidated MD-80 operations at two bases: Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS) and Sanford, Florida (SFB).
Allegiant then lined up enough Airbus A320-family aircraft to accelerate retirement of its remaining MD-80s. The ULCC ended 2017 with 89 aircraft, including 37 MD-80s. It will retire the venerable twinjets this year, while adding 30 Airbus aircraft, leading to a net drop of seven aircraft in its fleet and completing its transition to an all-A320-family operator.

The airline also has made personnel changes as part of its improvement efforts. Among them: new line maintenance teams at several key stations, including LAS and SFB, and new leadership in maintenance planning.

"Candidly, in past years, we didn't execute very well in leadership areas, in places we should have done better," Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher said in January.
Neither Allegiant nor the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, which represents its pilots, would discuss the airline's operation or the 60 Minutes report, opting instead to provide prepared statements. Two sources with firsthand knowledge Allegiant's operations but not authorized to speak on the carrier's behalf tell MRO Network that while the airline's issues were real, management is making positive strides and understands the importance of establishing an effective safety culture.

Data provided by FAA shows that Allegiant's rate of in-service disruptions--diversions, turn-backs, engine failures, and passenger-related disturbances--is coming down. The figure, measured per 1,000 departures, fell by half from fiscal 2015 to the six months ended March 31, the agency said.

"Since the 2016 CHEP, the FAA has conducted ongoing evaluations of Allegiant's safety compliance, as it does with all carriers, and has not identified any significant or systemic problems with the carrier's current operation," FAA said. "Had we identified such problems, the FAA would have taken immediate action."

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