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Should Eastern Iowans be worried Allegiant flies older planes?

Experts say age irrelevant, but recent incidents under FAA investigation

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An Allegiant plane sits at the gate as it is prepared for takeoff on flight 863 to St. Petersburg, Fla., from the Easter
An Allegiant plane sits at the gate as it is prepared for takeoff on flight 863 to St. Petersburg, Fla., from the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On an overcast summer morning, the only sunburst was the one painted on a sleek white Allegiant jet landing at The Eastern Iowa Airport.

The flight from Florida’s St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is a regular route for Allegiant Air and this plane, an MD-83 with tail number N427NV, is an old hand.

Since it was manufactured in 1986, it has logged 51,344 “airframe” hours, the FAA reports, which translates to 10,000 five-hour flights.

Until March 2010, N427NV — then called OY-KHC — flew passengers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden as part of the Scandinavian Airlines System.

SAS sold the plane to Allegiant in 2010 as part of an effort to phase out aging aircraft. Other airlines, including American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, also have ditched MD-80 series jets in favor of newer planes that don’t require as much upkeep.

“These are economic decisions made by airlines,” said Richard Wlezien, department chairman and professor in Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State University. “Working with older airplanes, you will incur added maintenance.”

Allegiant flights account for about 20 percent of the passenger volume at The Eastern Iowa Airport, director Marty Lenss said. The Las Vegas-based carrier is taking heat nationally for mechanical issues causing diverted flights and emergency landings. None of the incidents happened on flights bound for Cedar Rapids, but a June 12 Allegiant flight from Las Vegas to the Quad City International Airport in Moline returned to Vegas because of engine problems.

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All airlines have occasional mechanical issues, but at least two Allegiant incidents have drawn the FAA’s attention. The agency is investigating an extremely unusual mechanical failure in an MD-83 Aug. 17 in Las Vegas that caused the nose wheel of the jet bound for Peoria to lift prematurely before takeoff.

Allegiant pilots aborted the flight.

The FAA also is reviewing an emergency landing in Fargo in July.

Brian Muldoon swore off Allegiant after hearing about incidents like these.

The Lancaster, Wis., resident regularly drove to Cedar Rapids and Moline to take direct Allegiant flights for vacation. In July, Muldoon’s flight back from Las Vegas was canceled for mechanical problems.

“The next day after we got home, I Googled Allegiant Air and saw in the news section stories of multiple flights making emergency landings in Florida,” Muldoon said. “There are more flights running low on fuel, engines with catastrophic failure in North Carolina and residents of Las Vegas seeing flames coming out of a 757.”

Allegiant officials acknowledged recent mechanical issues, which they say have been caused by heavy travel over the summer.

“Our overall safety record continues to be one of the best in the industry, and we continue to operate every flight with the safety of our passengers and crew the No. 1 priority,” the company said in an Aug. 31 email to The Gazette.

older planes

Allegiant Air, a low-fare carrier, started Cedar Rapids-to-Las Vegas routes in 2004. With a sun-and-fun focus, Allegiant now has nonstop flights from The Eastern Iowa Airport to Las Vegas, Phoenix/Mesa, Orlando/Sanford, Punta Gorda and St. Pete-Clearwater.

The airline flew nearly 1,300 flights to and from Cedar Rapids in fiscal 2015. The biggest month was March with nearly 50 flights per week, the airline reported.

The average age of Allegiant’s fleet is 22.1 years, according to AirFleets.net, which tracks the fleet status of nearly all the world’s airlines. In comparison, American has an average fleet age of 11.7 years, United Airlines 13.6 years and Delta Air Lines 17.2 years, according to AirFleets.net.

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The Gazette observed nine Allegiant arrivals at The Eastern Iowa Airport in early August and recorded the plane tail numbers, which can be used to look up the planes ages with the FAA. These planes included five MD-80 series jets manufactured in 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1991 and four Airbus 320-family planes built in the early to mid 2000s.

MD-80 series planes, a midrange, two-engine, one-aisle jet introduced in 1980, are workhorses with some of the best safety records in the sky. A 2013 analysis by Boeing Commercial Airplanes showed MD-80s had a lower fatal hull loss rate, which scores crashes involving fatalities, than the average for all commercial jets.

“The age (of planes) is almost irrelevant,” said Tom Schnell, a University of Iowa associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering who flies fighter jets as part of his work with the UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory. “What’s relevant is how you maintain them.”

Maintaining aging aircraft

Allegiant says its aircraft are inspected and serviced by the company’s mechanics every night. Large-scale maintenance projects are driven by cycles — counted as one takeoff and one landing — or by time.

“Cycles put pressure and strain on an aircraft, and so required maintenance for most carriers with high utilization is driven by these cycles,” Allegiant said. “However, if an aircraft is not being utilized at a high rate and not reaching cycles limits, there are time intervals that will drive maintenance.”

An MD-80 is rated to fly 100,000 cycles, or flights, Allegiant spokesman Brian Davis told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2013. N427NV — the 29-year-old plane that landed in Cedar Rapids Aug. 9 — has flown 43,215 cycles, the company said.

A detailed FAA report requested by The Gazette shows SAS signed a form May 10, 2010, saying N427NV had been in no accidents and had no “major failures” or fires before its sale to Allegiant.

The FAA assigns a team of inspectors to each airline and grants an airworthiness certificate to each plane that can be revoked if inspectors find maintenance gaps, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, the FAA’s Midwest spokeswoman.

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The agency raised its surveillance of Allegiant last spring after pilots threatened to strike over contract disputes. After a federal judge blocked the strike, the FAA returned to normal surveillance and started allowing Allegiant to add new routes.

One of the nation’s fastest-growing airlines, Allegiant had a 63 percent increase in net income, totaling $54.3 million, during the second quarter, compared with the same period in 2014, according to the Washington Post. Allegiant has experienced a 76 percent boost over the same period a year ago.

Critics allege incidents

Some in the industry think the airline isn’t reinvesting in fleet maintenance.

“The money is there,” Chris Moore, a longtime airline mechanic with the Aviation Mechanics Coalition, told The Gazette. “Put it back into the maintenance program, you can get rid of a lot of these problems.”

The coalition is part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents pilots in the ongoing contract dispute with Allegiant.

The group created an anonymous tip line for Allegiant pilots and mechanics to report problems with the planes they were fixing or flying. Over seven months, callers reported dozens of incidents that included smoke in the cabin or cockpit, pressurization issues and engine problems, according to an April 2015 report from the coalition.

None of the events reported to the tip line happened at The Eastern Iowa Airport, but callers described two incidents on Allegiant flights to the Des Moines International Airport and one headed to the Moline airport. The events reported on Des Moines-bound flights included an inoperative weather radar Jan. 30 and issues with the flight control system Feb. 1, the coalition reported.

A Sept. 28 flight to Moline was diverted, the report noted, because of issues with navigation instruments.

The FAA did not have service difficulty reports on the incidents alleged for Des Moines-bound flights

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The FAA had not received service difficulty reports on any of these alleged events, although airlines usually only report diversions, aborted takeoffs and emergency declarations.

under investigation

Some industry experts think Allegiant’s critics have tipped off the media about Allegiant’s problems, large and small, to make the airline look bad.

The malfunction on the Aug. 17 flight from Las Vegas to Peoria was not a minor problem, said experts have said in other news reports. If the flight had not been aborted, pilots could have had difficulties controlling the plane.

“This new story is very distressing,” said Wlezien, the ISU aerospace engineering professor. “It points to a rare and dangerous situation that may be the result improper maintenance.”

The FAA’s preliminary investigation found a nut on a component that moves the left elevator had fallen off, causing the control surface to become jammed in the up position.

“Immediately following the event, Allegiant initiated a fleetwide inspection of all of its MD80 aircraft to ensure the flight control systems in those aircraft were functioning properly before returning them into service,” Allegiant told The Gazette. “All aircraft were found to be in working order.”

The FAA won’t comment on the ongoing probe.

There’s little data available to benchmark Allegiant with other airlines.

The U.S. Department of Transportation releases monthly air travel consumer reports that list how the major airlines scored in mishandled bags, oversales, consumer complaints, reports to Homeland Security and animal incidents. Allegiant isn’t included in this review because it doesn’t meet the threshold of at least 1 percent of the nation’s total domestic flights.

A side effect of minor mechanical issues can be flight delays or cancellations. Allegiant is in the middle of the pack for both canceled and delayed flights into and out of The Eastern Iowa Airport, a Gazette review shows.

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Still, Allegiant’s Chief Operating Office Steve Harfst told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in an Aug. 29 story the airline plans to move to an all-Airbus fleet to improve fuel efficiency and cheaper operations. He predicts half the airline’s fleet will be Airbuses by 2018

United regional carrier has highest share of delayed Cedar Rapids flights

A regional carrier for United Airlines had a larger share of delayed flights than other airlines at The Eastern Iowa Airport last year.

Trans States, a Saint Louis-based airline, had delays of at least 15 minutes on 268 scheduled flights to or from Cedar Rapids in fiscal 2015, which was 37 percent of 731 total flights, according to a Gazette analysis of data provided to The Gazette by online flight tracker Flight Aware.

The airline did not respond to emails and a phone call seeking comment.

Of the 17,314 scheduled arrivals and departures at The Eastern Iowa Airport in fiscal 2015, 28 percent were at least 15 minutes late. That fits data showing about three-quarters of U.S. flight arrivals since Jan. 1 were on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But when flights are late — or worse, canceled — travelers can be surly. Unpredictable flight delays and cancellations were listed as the No. 1 frustration for 67 percent of 2,700 air travelers surveyed by Trip Advisor earlier this year.

Foul weather, mechanical issues and crew illness all can cause flight setbacks, said Marty Lenss, Eastern Iowa Airport director. The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport recently tweaked flight patterns, which caused several months of delays for planes headed to Cedar Rapids and other destinations, Lenss said.

“For all the many things that could make a plane not run on time, the entire system functions very well,” he said.

Envoy Air, an American Airlines regional carrier, had the largest number of scheduled flights to and from The Eastern Iowa Airport in fiscal 2015, with 6,553, Flight Aware reported. Of those, 2,089, or 32 percent, were delayed by 15 minutes or more and 389, or 5.9 percent, were canceled.

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“The highest numbers occurred at the beginning of the year, primarily due to weather,” said Martha Thomas, American Airlines spokeswoman. “We had a pretty stormy and wet beginning of the year.”

Envoy flies mainly Embraer 145 aircraft out of the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Thomas said. Air traffic controllers at those airports issued a large number of weather warnings last winter, she said, and regional flights on smaller planes are the first ones canceled.

Allegiant Air, which has faced criticism in recent months about mechanical issues with flights in other states, saw delays on 26 percent of its 1,280 scheduled arrivals and departures at The Eastern Iowa Airport in fiscal 2015.

The Las Vegas-based carrier, which provides non-stop flights to warm weather locales, had only 10 canceled flights to or from Cedar Rapids last year, Flight Aware reported.

Gazette reporters George Ford, Chelsea Keenan and Jessie Hellmann contributed to this story.

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