US Watchdog Investigates FAA’s Handling of Allegiant and American Airlines Maintenance Records

May 10, 2018

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The US Department of Transportation’s office of the Inspector General announced it would open a new probe of the Federal Aviation Administration’s handling of two US airlines: Allegiant and American Airlines.

In a memo published Wednesday, Assistant IG Matthew Hampton announced the watchdog body would be narrowing an industry-wide investigation into the FAA’s oversight of airline maintenance, which was opened in June 2017, to just look specifically at how the FAA handled Allegiant and American.

Hampton writes that the IG office informed Congress in February that it would be adjusting the scope of its investigation to the two carriers’ maintenance records. This decision was based on several factors, listed in the memo. Among them were an analysis of complaints to the FAA hotline about the carriers’ maintenance programs, the airlines’ fleet mixes and the fact that “relationships and information-sharing practices between air carriers and their FAA oversight offices vary significantly.”

Allegiant has been under fire for its maintenance record since a “60 Minutes” report that aired in April questioned its safety protocols. The report showed that between January 2016 and October 2017, Allegiant had more than 100 serious mechanical incidents — a statistic significantly higher than its competitors’. Allegiant had an alarming number of aborted takeoffs, emergency descents, unscheduled landings and more. The ultra-low-cost carrier also has the oldest fleet of any US airline.

Following that report, several members of Congress wrote letters requesting a federal probe into Allegiant’s maintenance protocols. These letters are also cited in the DOT IG’s letter.

It is less clear why American’s records have been put under further review.

“American Airlines was shocked to learn of the Office of Inspector General’s review and we stand by our strong safety record,” a spokesperson for the carrier told TPG. “Our team is working to understand why we are part of its review. We welcome all oversight from the federal agencies involved in ensuring the safety of the traveling public and are proud of our partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration.”

The statement went on to note that in 2017 American — the world’s largest airline — safely transported more than 200 million customers on more than 2.2 million flights. “Running a safe airline is the responsibility of the entire American team, from leadership to frontline team members and in collaboration with our union partners,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Allegiant told TPG the carrier would “welcome any analysis of our operation and safety culture, at any time. It will show what we know to be true, that Allegiant operates at the highest level of safety, in strict adherence with all FAA regulations and guidelines.”

The Allegiant spokesperson continued to say that safety is at the “heart” of the airline’s operations and “a guiding star for our company,” and she noted that nearly 90 million passengers have flown on Allegiant since the carrier’s inception.

The goal of the investigation, according to the memo, will be to assess how the FAA investigates allegations that the two airlines have improper maintenance practices.

For its part, the FAA seemed confident in its oversight process in the face of the federal review.

“The FAA is continually working to enhance safety for the flying public and is never content with the status quo,” a spokesperson for the agency told TPG. “We welcome the OIG’s examination of the FAA’s comprehensive oversight system. This system is designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken. The process is dynamic and requires that the FAA, and the airlines we oversee, constantly strive for safety improvements.”

The IG’s probe comes at a time when many US carrier’s are taking new looks at their maintenance records — particularly engine maintenance — in the wake of a fatal Southwest engine explosion in April.

After Southwest flight 1380 had an engine fan blade break off and cause the engine to explode, cracking a window and killing one passenger on board, the FAA issued an emergency mandatory directive for all similar engine types to be re-examined. Southwest’s maintenance records are also being examined by the National Transportation Safety Board as part of that investigation. The carrier was not, however, mentioned in the DOT IG’s investigation memo Wednesday.

*This post has been updated with Allegiant’s statement to TPG.

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