Paul Harvey passed away in 2009; he embodied common sense when journalism was still impartial. He is remembered for such quotes, “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’, what is the opposite of ‘progress’?”. My age group best remembers him for The Rest of the Story, a series of stories … about stories; they delved deeper into a narrative than was originally reported, giving both humorous or dramatic information that made a great story so much greater. He remains the Master.
Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes recently reported a story about Allegiant Air called Flying Under the Radar; he hoped to highlight Allegiant’s safety violation problems and any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight. Mister Kroft’s investigative reporting was questionable. Does Allegiant have safety issues? Yes. Do all airlines have safety issues? Again, yes. Is the FAA broken? Absolutely. Do we trust the Federal Government for its experience; can its objectivity and integrity be believed? No … just, no.
It is never okay to yell ‘FIRE’ in a crowded movie house. Safety and lives are compromised as people scramble for the safest exit. Such is the way with aviation safety; one does not call what’s ‘UNBROKEN’, ‘BROKEN’, while ignoring what is actually broken. Southwest Airlines flight 1380’s recent mid-air, uncontained engine failure accident; will it get the much needed attention? With Southwest flight 3461’s diversion to Panama City and Steve Kroft’s Allegiant Air drama muddying the waters, will Southwest 1380’s urgency get lost in the minutiae, the danger left unaddressed for days?
The 60 Minutes webpage: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/allegiant-air-the-budget-airline-flying-under-the-radar/, provided a transcript. First off, Steve Kroft is not an aviator; he would not know a Turbine Engine from a Ram Air Turbine. It is arrogant for a celebrity to advise the aviation industry on how to police its own. He is a reporter who relies on his own skills to tell ‘Steve Kroft’s story’. His team possesses trade secrets on setting up interviews, e.g. the proper backdrop; artificial lighting versus sunlight; shadow use; make-up application; takes and retakes for capturing the ‘proper reaction’, etc. Then, employing these skills, Mister Kroft interviewed former passengers. What linked them? Being on terrifying Allegiant flights. They are not aviators, but that fact is never a prerequisite for being afraid.
The first was a young woman who tearfully relayed her fear of never seeing her daughter again after the right engine on her Allegiant flight caught fire. Seeing flames exit the rear of an engine is scary, no doubt; it also begs the question: Why didn’t the pilot just stop the aircraft after the engine vomited flames? Two facts could have allayed this woman’s fears. First fact, all two-engine airliners are designed to fly on one engine in just such an emergency. Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 25.121 Climb: One-Engine Inoperative speaks to these designs. In other words, the passengers were not in danger. Mister Kroft ignored this fact; instead, he exploited the woman’s crying. Second, the airliner could not be stopped. Simply put, once the airliner’s take-off roll passes a ‘point of no return’ – Rotation Speed – the airliner is committed to flight. If the pilots slammed the nose down to stop, the outcome could have been disastrous, resulting in multiple fatalities, thus the need for 14 CFR Part 25.121.
A second passenger told a story about smoke in the cabin. Mister Kroft makes a comment that the cabin filled with hydraulic fluid fumes from Skydrol, an oily hydraulic fluid. Why weren’t the oxygen masks dropped? The fact is that Oxygen, in pure form – as from an oxygen mask – reacts violently to airborne lubricants and oils. Skydrol would not burn; Oxygen, however, would, causing burns to faces and lungs. Since the aircraft was on the ground, why not open the four overwing exit window plugs or the entry door, get fresh air circulating throughout the cabin? If I was choking, I would have forgone permission and removed the overwing exits myself. In this event, the airline’s emergency procedures must be rewritten. However, not dropping the Oxygen masks was a good call.
Mister Kroft interviewed John Duncan, Executive Director of FAA’s Flight Standards Division. This was a mistake on so many levels. If Mister Kroft really wanted hard answers about why enforcements against Allegiant were not followed through; if Mister Kroft was really serious about fixing safety mismanagement, John Duncan was not the person to ask. To be clear: Mister Kroft can ask Mister Duncan about anything; Mister Duncan should have been better prepared for any and all questions, but John Duncan was not the person with that enforcement information or that duty. The FAA’s Office of the Chief Counsel (OCC) – the FAA’s Legal Division – is responsible for enforcements; it is the FAA OCC’s decision not to pursue safety violation prosecutions. Mister Kroft edited in a few ‘gotcha’ questions, but the interview’s ‘search for answers’ was a waste of Mister Duncan’s time and the viewer’s time.
Much in Mister Kroft’s report was made about the Tampa Bay Times (TBT) reporting on Allegiant’s safety issues from January 2015(?) – or, was it December 2015(?) – to January 2016. In April 2016, TBT’s investigative reporting concluded that, the FAA found no deficiencies and that Allegiant was re-certified for five more years. Wha-a-at? Air carrier certificates do not expire! They are valid until surrendered, revoked or suspended. Unless there are records of these actions, there would be no recertification. TBT conducted an investigatory report in an unknown timeframe; they then reported a recertification that did not happen. The TBT is to be commended for pursuing the story, but it is not read by FAA management in Washington, DC. Furthermore, the Certificate Management Office for Allegiant is in Nevada, not Florida; the Principal Inspectors for Allegiant are in Nevada. If the TBT wants to alert the FAA about safety, they need to communicate to Washington, DC and Nevada where the people who can actually affect change are located.
Since Mister Kroft does not have aviation experience, he acquired two experts. His aim was to use qualified people to express the opinions he wants expressed. Enter former NTSB Board Member, John Goglia and former FAA Attorney, Loretta Alkalay. Before introducing his experts, Kroft points to Service Difficulty Reports (SDR) that, “we have been scrutinizing”. Who are Mister Kroft’s ‘we’ people?
It is John Goglia’s interview that stands out; he demonstrates that political prowess he’s lorded over reporters for decades, saying one thing while subliminally winking at the camera. Vague questions are answered with vague opinions, e.g. “we’ve seen that in airlines”. Where? What airlines? “I try to push Allegiant to clean up their operation.” Did Mister Goglia really review Allegiant’s operations? Of course not, but Mister Kroft is sold, eagerly accepting this feedback at face value. He’s been played by the best.
Mister Goglia’s most telling reveal, however, is his statement about SDRs, “Well, just the service difficulty reports say that– somebody’s not paying attention.” Again, John Goglia knows. By definition, an SDR means someone is paying attention; that 14 CFR Parts 121.703, 135.415 and 145.221 Service Difficulty Reports dictate to all certificate holders to report serious failures and malfunctions. Allegiant filed SDRs, but do they point to one particular aircraft? To one particular fleet? To one component? To one flight control? To one instrument system? Why were the SDRs written? Mister Kroft cannot provide answers. Mister Kroft’s ambiguity casts doubt on his report’s accuracy; he sacrifices truth for unsubstantiated allegations, like when he is concerned with the “antiquated, gas-guzzling” MD-80. Two other major airlines still fly the MD-80. Should the flying public be running from the airports?
Mister Goglia, again, tries to spoon feed issues Mister Kroft is missing. “We’ve seen some problems with the contractors that they’ve used.” Who is this phantom ‘we’ group Mister Goglia refers to? Mister Kroft misses it. More importantly, Allegiant’s contract maintenance providers don’t solely work on Allegiant aircraft. Big Repair Stations (maintenance providers) have multiple big Operator clients. John Goglia knows this; he really tries to open Mister Kroft’s eyes to a bigger picture of the industry. Instead, Steve Kroft glazes over as the facts elude him. Points to John Goglia for at least trying.
Loretta Alkalay, former FAA Legal representative from the FAA OCC, also makes vague comments based on hearsay. This dialog, however, is very disappointing. Ms. Alkalay condemns the FAA’s legal actions, attacking her former colleagues’ decisions based on her reading of one letter supplied by … Mister Kroft? Did she speak to Allegiant’s FAA Principal Operations Inspector? Did she call Allegiant’s Chief Pilot? Mister Kroft misses another opportunity to see the bigger picture.
Noting another FAA ‘failure’, Ms. Alkalay states that Allegiant received a ‘slap on the wrist’. After an FAA Inspector pushed for harsher enforcement action, the violation was reduced to a Letter of Correction because of the FAA’s new Compliance Philosophy. Ms. Alkalay calls this decision, “basically nothing.” Where did the FAA’s new Compliance Philosophy come from? Answer: The FAA Legal Department, the OCC; they are the final word on enforcements. Ms. Alkalay and her former colleagues wrote the new Compliance Philosophy she is now condemning. If Mister Kroft interviewed the FAA’s Chief Counsel, and not Mister Duncan, he would have gotten answers to his questions.
Let’s recap. Steve Kroft’s 60 Minutes story focused on: (1) an engine fire that was not life-threatening. (2) Smoke in a cabin where possible injury was averted by Allegiant’s flight crew. (3) Tampa Bay Times’ stories where the obscure newspaper misdirected its coverage. (4) Re-certifications that did not happen. (5) A Compliance Philosophy criticized by a person who helped write it. (6) Unfounded concerns about contract maintenance; misunderstanding the purpose of SDRs; an interview with the wrong FAA official; unanswered questions; ambiguous reporting; opinions in place of facts; no expert solutions and misinformation about safety items. Now, three US Senators are crying for investigations into, what amounts to, the wrong problems and irresponsible sensationalism.
Paul Harvey’s integrity is truly gone. Mister Kroft wasted an opportunity to make a positive impact on Allegiant’s safety culture. There were no revelations here; no lessons learned. Should the FAA be scrutinized? Yes. Investigate Allegiant Airlines? Make it happen. But let the findings be fact-based, with real solutions. Do not let important safety items fall victim to ignorance and emotion.