Profits Before Safety

April 19th, 2018 by Phil Mattera

The passengers who survived Southwest Flight 1380’s engine explosion are feeling lucky to be alive and grateful for the skilled landing executed by pilot Tammie Jo Shults. Another group feeling relief are the top executives of Allegiant Air. If the accident had happened to one of their planes, the carrier’s survival might be in question.

That’s because of the revelations contained in a remarkable 60 Minutes investigative report on Allegiant that aired on April 15th. Correspondent Steve Kroft described the culture of the budget carrier as one that puts profits before safety and that discourages pilots from reporting mechanical problems with their aircraft. The piece documented an alarming pattern of aborted takeoffs, cabin pressure loss, emergency descents and unscheduled landings during Allegiant flights.

In one incident Allegiant, whose executives refused to be interviewed by 60 Minutes, fired a pilot who made an emergency landing when smoke appeared in the cabin and then ordered passengers to exit rapidly through escape chutes once the plane was on the ground.

To its credit, 60 Minutes did not focus only on Allegiant. It also investigated why a carrier with such a checkered track record was still allowed to fly. The answer turned out to be that the Federal Aviation Administration has during the past few years adopted a less confrontational enforcement approach.

Kroft grilled John Duncan, the FAA’s head of flight standards, who went through extraordinary verbal contortions to avoid saying anything negative about Allegiant’s record. Duncan insisted that each incident was addressed separately and refused to acknowledge there was any pattern of misconduct. Duncan is a living embodiment of that new FAA approach, which involves quietly cooperating with carriers to fix problems rather than pressuring them with large fines and other public sanctions.

The FAA has not abandoned monetary penalties entirely. In Violation Tracker, Allegiant has eight entries from the agency, the largest being a $175,000 fine from 2015 for drug testing deficiencies. Penalties like that are fine for routine infractions, but something a lot more punitive is needed when a company has the kind of dismal record attributed to Allegiant.

Higher fines are just part of what is needed at the FAA. The agency should return to an adversarial posture and compel rogue carriers such as Allegiant to take safety issues seriously.

It won’t be easy for the FAA to change its course, since the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans are on a crusade against just about every kind of regulation. The latest maneuver is the use of the Congressional Review Act, an obscure law employed last year to undo rules adopted by the Obama Administration during the prior 12 months, to eliminate a longer-standing one: the 2013 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulation barring auto lenders from charging minority customers higher interest rates.

This obsession with dismantling the so-called administrative state has gone beyond all justification and is putting the population more and more at the mercy of unscrupulous companies.

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