Good or bad, low cost air carriers have taken the world by storm. Some of the most well known in the US are companies like Southwest, Frontier and Spirit. Europe is no exception seeing companies like Ryanair take over as a major air carrier. In many cases these companies offer no frills sort of fares that limit you on things like picking seats, getting food, or even carring your luggage on board. These companies make money on the fees they levy after the initial low cost fare. However, when it comes to some companies, you may be paying the cost not with money, but with your own safety.
Washington Post ran an article singling out Allegiant Air as a major problem in the low cost industry. If you have never heard of Allegiant Air, I wouldn't be surprised, they likely don't fly to many of the major markets you may be used to. Allegiant focuses on smaller airports servicing higher capacity direct flight routes. The only place I've ever seen them is at Syracuse Airport in New York when I visit family. From SYR airport, the company serves only 4 destinations, 3 in Florida and 1 in South Carolina. These routes are popular tourist destination airports, but not Orlando as you might expect, but rather places like Tampa.
Allegiant has been a darling child on Wall Street, seeing growth numbers unprecedented in the low cost carrier market. The company racked up a 154% increase in profits last year. That type of growth should sound suspicious to anyone, especially in a saturated market like low cost carriers. This in the past has made Allegiant a big stock on the markets of Wall Street... well it was. It seems that is has begun to fall out of favor, shedding a massive percentage of their once high stock value.
We should all take notice of what is happening at Allegiant Air, something that could massively impact many people. Safety may very well not be the top priority it deserves at Allegiant. The company made many of their strides by buying older aircraft at a massively reduced price over new aircraft. Problem is, with older the aircraft is they tend to be more likely to see a failure if not properly maintained. These aircraft are old and in turn require more maintenance, and more safety checks on a more regular basis. Now this could still equal massive profits due to the major up front savings on the aircraft. Done correctly, these aircraft don't need to be unsafe.
However, Allegiant is starting to draw attention not only from the press but also from the FAA. Arguably the FAA should have been on top of this problem long ago, since Allegiant has had some major missteps in recent years. Famously a mid air mishap occurred aboard Allegiant flight 864 about a year ago. After takeoff the pilot turned the aircraft around and made an emergency landing due to a strong smoke smell in the plane. After landing, the airplane was evacuated as an engine smoked on the runway. Emergency crews had to meet the aircraft as passengers rushed to de-board the plane.
This should have been a incident that resulted in the pilot being praised for good judgement and protecting passengers... instead the pilot was fired. Allegiant stated the reason for removing the pilot was that he failed to protect the plane and evacuated without just cause, causing the plane to require significant repairs to replace evacuation windows, slides and the like. Allegiant is now caught in a legal battle over wrongful termination. I think we can all agree this is a case where Allegiant was acting in their best interest and not that of the pilot or passengers. Beyond that, this may indicate a systemic problem at the company, safety may not be taking the forward role that it should be.
Looking at data acquired over the safety record of Allegiant, a troubling trend was easily seen. Delta operates many similar aircraft to Allegiant, often on their regional routes. The aircraft Delta operates are also very close in age to the ones that Allegiant operate as well. During all of 2015 and the first 3 months of 2016, Allegiant Air had 9 times more incidents than Delta even though Delta operates a fleet 3 times larger than Allegiant. Those are some pretty damning numbers.
We've seen similar problems at other low cost carriers too. Southwest a number of years ago was caught bribing FAA officials to allow aircraft to continue flying beyond dates when they were required to undergo major safety checks. While this saved millions of dollars for Southwest by deferring these checks, it also put many airplanes and passengers at risk. These rules are in place for a reason and while we can argue on how restrictive the rules should be, the fact remains these are currently the laws. Profit is not a good enough reason to throw safety out the window.
While Allegiant Air seems to have a major internal problem, we also need to watch all of these low cost carriers. When operating in a industry where profits can be difficult to turn, safety may be the one thing that is sacrificed for the bottom line. This is never ok, and we need to start to hold people accountable for their actions on these fronts.
Next time you want to fly with a low cost carrier to save a few dollars, just keep in mind what you may be sacrificing for that low cost ticket.
Rocket Scientist, Travel Junkie, and Ruler of the 4th Moon of Omicron Persei 8