When word came down that 60 Minutes would be shining a spotlight on Allegiant’s safety record a couple weeks back, I assumed I knew what it was about; I was just curious if we’d learn anything new. We did not. Instead we were treated to a really terrible piece of journalism.
How awful was it? Pretty awful. If you watched the piece, you know that John Goglia was one of the primary experts used to prove that Allegiant is unsafe. But what 60 Minutes failed to disclose is that he’s an expert witness being paid to testify against Allegiant in a case that’s just about to begin, a case that was referenced in the piece itself. Not disclosing that is downright irresponsible, and it cast a shadow on everything else. After digging in, I realized that was just the most prominent of many problems in the report.
Allegiant, A Fair Target to Research
This isn’t to say that Allegiant hasn’t deserved closer scrutiny. The idea that Allegiant was an unsafe airline was nothing new. There were the blockbuster reports from the Tampa Bay Times and Washington Post, but there had also been plenty of local and industry coverage surrounding individual events. If you asked most people in the airline industry, they had likely heard the narrative at some point.
There are nagging questions, including extraordinarily severe incidents like the airplane that had a missing cotter pin. That should never have happened, and it resulted in a near-disaster. Everyone is lucky the pilots aborted that takeoff. There was a time, particularly in 2014 and 2015, where Allegiant saw its incident numbers spike. Even if it wasn’t the worst in the industry, as you’ll see below, it was certainly wise to look more closely at the airline back then.
Allegiant also failed to do itself any favors in the way it handled 60 Minutes. It fought the release of FAA data. That made the airline look guilty. Then it failed to make its CEO available to go on camera. If you have scheduling conflicts, you move things around. As another industry communications pro said to me, if 60 Minutes calls, you don’t say no. And the memos with which the airline followed up were too little too late. Allegiant only made itself look guiltier through its actions, playing right into the flimsy 60 Minutes narrative.
That narrative fed off the presumption of guilt at Allegiant, and then the story was manipulated to feed that conclusion. While there were some data points, 60 Minutes relied heavily on drama and fluff to hammer the case home. For example, Steve Croft noted in his intro that Allegiant “has more than its share of angry, traumatized passengers willing to share their experiences.” There is, of course, no way to verify whether Allegiant has had more than its share without asking every traveler if he or she has been traumatized. But 60 Minutes started with that questionable statement and rolled right into multiple segments showcasing passengers who had harrowing experiences on three separate flights.
I’m not trying to belittle those people. I’m sure it was frightening to be onboard those airplanes, and I have little doubt all of us would have had similar responses. But that emotion doesn’t prove the thesis that Allegiant is more unsafe than the rest. Mechanical problems happen, and you can find people who have flown every airline who would gladly go on camera to tell their stories. But is Allegiant really worse?
Manipulating the Data
The story used a couple of data points to try to make the case, but 60 Minutes misused that data. There was one statistic that 60 Minutes trotted out twice: Allegiant was “nearly three and a half times more likely” to have mid-air breakdowns, but the second time that stat was mentioned, it added… “than American, United, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit.”
The program made a big deal about going to the FAA and making a Freedom of Information Request to get Mechanical Interruption Summary Report (MISR) data. (Allegiant objected, as noted, but the data was eventually released anyway, as it should have been.) But 60 Minutes noted that it requested information from Allegiant and 7 other airlines. Why when crafting this 3.5x stat did Allegiant only get compared to five of those airlines? Also, how did 60 Minutes sift through this data? I’m told some airlines file MISRs only for the minimum events required while others may file MISRs for every little thing.
I reached out to 60 Minutes and asked a question about methodology, but I did not receive a response. The irony of this, considering how 60 Minutes skewered Allegiant for not putting someone on camera, was not lost on me.
I don’t have the MISRs, but I do have access to Service Difficulty Reports (SDRs). When aircraft run into even minor problems, SDRs are filed with the FAA. This data is publicly available online. 60 Minutes looked at the data between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2017 and said it found 100 “serious mechanical incidents” for Allegiant. Even though 60 Minutes never responded to my query about methodology, I can get in the general neighborhood, so I don’t question the accuracy of these numbers. What I DO question is whether this is abnormal or not.
60 Minutes chose John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member who uses the Twitter handle @crashdetective, as one of its main experts to show just how awful these statistics were. John claimed that the number of events was “very, very high for an airline of this size.” He had plenty of other jabs to throw, but they just don’t hold up.
In a well-researched piece, Courtney Miller debunked the claims that Allegiant’s SDR rates were significantly higher than others. His story, Is Allegiant a Safe Airline? – Using Data to Review 60 Minutes’ Conclusions, is a must-read. What you find is that 60 Minutes manipulated the data, hand-picking the airlines to include in its dataset to make Allegiant look worse than it is.
Even when Allegiant was at its worst, it was still not THE worst. If you look at it by number of incidents per hours flown, then Allegiant was firmly in the middle of the pack. This metric is a good way to look at it, but it won’t resonate with the general public. The most public-friendly metric is to look at incidents per flight, and in that case, Allegiant was toward the bottom around 2014/2015, but that’s before the time period 60 Minutes says it used. By 2016 when 60 Minutes started looking, things had already dramatically improved for the airline, and the trend continued downward. Here’s that chart (and please note that the reason there are so many airlines is because regional airlines are reported independently):
If anything, that chart shows that if Allegiant had a problem, if there was a story to be told, it’s at least a couple years old. The program admitted it had been working on this for some time, but it was still late to the party. I’ve heard people say that 60 Minutes has been sniffing around for several months, but that would mean that the numbers had started to come down long before 60 Minutes started knocking on doors. So why did 60 Minutes run this now?
There does seem to be something that ties this all together, and if this is true, it puts 60 Minutes into an even worse light. It goes back to John Goglia, Jason Kinzer, and Allegiant flight 864.
The Saga of Allegiant 864
If the data doesn’t support the conclusion (or, at worst, hasn’t for a couple years), then why would John Goglia, someone with lengthy (if not recent) experience with accident investigations, go on camera and mislead? Well, we don’t know, but we do know that he had good reason to do so.
One of the flights that the report covered was Allegiant 864. It had a burning smell in the cabin after departing St Pete, so it returned to the field and evacuated. The pilot was fired after the investigation was completed, and he is suing the airline. It’s in this case where John Goglia is a paid expert witness for the pilot, testifying against Allegiant. That doesn’t mean 60 Minutes couldn’t use him in the piece, but it had an obligation to disclose that relationship.
The firing of Jason Kinzer, the captain of Allegiant 864, was used in the report as a way to demonstrate a problematic culture where people were fired for putting saving lives over saving money. That is certainly the story being pushed by the pilot, but Allegiant has a different take that deserves to be heard.
After talking to Allegiant, I was provided a couple hundred pages of court-filed documents, and I’ve reviewed them all. After the incident, Allegiant convened its Flight Standards Review Board (FSRB) to review what happened and try to learn what could have been done better. It met twice, and, well…
Based on the second FSRB meeting, the members of the Board were left with the impression that Plaintiff lacked the “ability for any personal responsibility or the ability for self critique and an opportunity for the expansion of [his] knowledge base on that aircraft, decision-making, or assessment skills.”
In other words, the FSRB found issues with how he responded after the incident. In any incident or accident, you want to learn from your mistakes, because you never do everything perfectly. In this incident, there were several issues. For example, the captain did not put on his oxygen mask even though that’s standard procedure in a situation like this. He also evacuated people through an exit right in front of the engine that he supposedly had concerns about. But according to Allegiant’s filing, the captain wasn’t interested in learning and said he “saw no room for improvement.” All of that is why Allegiant says he was fired.
Whether that’s correct or not is for the court to decide when the case picks back up here shortly. It’s clear that 60 Minutes wasn’t interested in waiting for the court, however, because it simply presented the one side that pushed its narrative forward.
There’s an even darker side to this case that puts more doubt into the core of the entire 60 Minutes story. The pilot’s attorneys inexplicably sent a letter to Allegiant’s attorneys which contained a thinly-veiled threat. This letter was submitted to the court by Allegiant, and while some parts are redacted, this paragraph says volumes:
We believe this demand is also justified because a resolution of this case will eliminate a major source of adverse publicity for your clients. Candidly, our office has been contacted by a number of short sellers, as well as media outlets hoping to use Captain Kinzer’s story as a lens through which to analyze the systemic problems at Allegiant. As I’m sure you are aware, the Washington Post did a similar article using Captain Kinzer’s case as a frame last fall; at present we have strong reason to believe major media want to explore that and related matters further via television. While we did not cooperate with the Washington post [sic], nor are we cooperating with any of the short sellers or media outlets that have knocked on our door, we believe that a resolution of this case, with confidentiality, would slam the door on further adverse publicity and weaken the entire ecosystem of negative reports about Allegiant, affording the company a priceless opportunity to “reboot.”
Your reaction was probably the same as mine… Why would you ever put that in writing?! It effectively says, “settle with us and the big TV story goes away.”
I couldn’t imagine that one case could drive the viability of this whole story, but maybe I should rethink that. Remember how the timing seemed strange? Well, this just happens to have run right before the court takes up the case. Strange timing indeed.
Not a Single Pilot Talked
Alarm bells rang for me once again when Teamsters 1224 President Daniel Wells (who doesn’t fly for Allegiant, but his union represents the company’s pilots) came on camera. It’s not that his speaking was of concern. It’s the fact that no Allegiant pilot spoke.
Daniel brushed this off, saying that nobody would talk because the company wouldn’t let them, as if that’s not the normal media policy for every company. But 60 Minutes can blur faces, change voices, or just print anonymous statements. If these issues are as severe and as compromising of safety as the story suggests, then 60 Minutes shouldn’t have had a problem finding at least one pilot who was willing to stand up and be a whistleblower. Instead, they let a union rep just spew out hearsay of generalizations he says he’s heard from other pilots. That’s rather weak.
Connecting the Dots
None of this smells right. There was a chunk of the report that talked about Allegiant 864, and John Goglia, a paid expert witness for the pilot of that flight, was one of the two primary experts used to validate the findings. That alone is highly concerning. The timing makes things even worse. You have a letter from the pilot’s attorney saying that if Allegiant settles, the media scrutiny goes away. Allegiant didn’t settle, and this story comes out right before the case goes to trial. Like I said, none of this smells right.
I grew up watching 60 Minutes and have long enjoyed many of their exposés. But seeing how this was handled raises serious questions for me, and it’ll make me think twice before blindly trusting anything else they put out.