The battle between Allegiant Air and its unions has been festering for far too long and does not seem to have a chance of being resolved any time soon. The criticisms by labor focus on a lack of a safety culture at the airline. The FAA has taken several looks at the practices of the carrier, especially its MX operations. So far the only major violation announced by the safety organization was directed at the carrier’s administration of its drug and alcohol program.
In that context, the story (below) about the Allegiant advertisement (above) and then a strange incident 10 days after the safety statement suggests an incongruous, internal conflict. The ad/problem coincidence supports a diagnosis that the environment is likely currently poisoned.
Regulation by the FAA has recently focused on a powerful tool called Safety Management System. Ideally, a company-wide team is authorized to examine its trends in safety—based on a heavy dose of data, establish priorities, assess solutions and then implement an agreed-upon agenda. The constitution of this committee includes all elements—including pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, management, etc.—and is intended to be based on all members’ active participants in all of the Safety Risk Management process. The FAA office with authority over the airline’s certificate is a member of this proactive approach.
Ideally, the complaints of the unions should have been included as subjects for the SMS review; theoretically, the data generated by the daily Allegiant flights would evidence the trends which the pilots and mechanics articulate. The review should have drawn suggested solutions from all parties, particularly those most directly involved in the cockpits and in the hangars. Those discussions are designed to develop consensus for the group’s selected remediation.
Something in the implementation of SMS is not working. From the outside perspective it is really unprofessional to guess what may be fouling the works—lack of real implementation, false “consensus,” unexpressed/undetected withholding of true participation by all parties, etc., etc.???
What is externally evident is that there has been considerable turnover at the executive/management side of safety at Allegiant.
A little over a year ago, Steve Harfst, was hired as the airlines’ COO. The Naval Aviator came to Las Vegas with three previous COO positions on his resume. Last fall in response to a barrage of union safety allegations, Mr. Harfst signed a strong statement (issued via the Allegiant website) in support of the company; here are a few of the critical quotes:
Allegiant is a safe airline. We have robust internal and external auditing programs. We are investing heavily in new training programs and technologies that are industry leading. With the full support of our FAA Certificate Management Office (CMO) we will be one of the first FAA Part 121 airlines to enter the validation phase of our Safety Management System and we are making great progress in the FAA approval of our Advanced Qualification Program (AQP). These initiatives are just a few examples of your company’s focus and support of safety. We are proud of our safety record and we are committed to advancing a culture of safety and continuous improvement throughout the organization.
- This past quarter, we have significantly increased our maintenance budget, particularly to increase line maintenance staffing levels and aircraft component support.
- We have increased staffing levels in maintenance control, hired supplemental maintenance support at high traffic airports and approved the hiring of more staff at all of the airports we serve.
- Allegiant’s maintenance expense per available seat mile (ASM) is actually higher than the industry average as reported in filed Form 41 Department of Transportation (DOT) reports from other airlines. The fact is that the amount we spend on maintaining our aircraft does not enter into our decision-making process when it comes to safety.
- We are working to improve the daily execution of our flight schedule within the OCC, and are working on additional initiatives at our bases to improve infrastructure (ground power units, cooling units, staffing levels, etc…).
- The Department of Defense (DoD), in their most recent audit completed in May of this year, found Allegiant to have an excellent record of running a very reliable airline, with the protocols and practices in place to ensure the highest levels of safety for our passengers. This most recent and comprehensive DoD audit re-certified Allegiant to perform Civil Reserve Air Fleet operations; a status we have held continuously since 2005.
- We are not now, nor have we been since the failed IBT strike attempt in April of this year, under any additional or increased oversight by our FAA Certificate Management Office (CMO). As with all scheduled 121 airlines, we are in constant, daily interaction with the FAA certificate management team and there is nothing in our operation that has generated any non-routine surveillance from our certificate management office.
That’s a text book statement of how a COO committed to a safety culture and inculcated in the principles of SMS should state. Less than 90 days later, Mr. Harfst unexpectedly resigned. The airline’s CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. said:
“We thank Steve for his contributions to Allegiant. We look forward to continuing his efforts to strengthen our operation.”
Six days later, Mr. Gallagher appointed Jude Bricker, Allegiant’s senior vice president of planning, became the company’s new chief operating officer, taking on the oversight of flight operations, maintenance and safety in addition to his current role of leading network and fleet strategy.
Bricker, too, was a Navy fighter pilot, but upon departure from the service, he went to work at American Airlines in the finance function and joined Allegiant in May 2006 as manager of fleet planning. He became the director of fleet planning in 2007 before being promoted to vice president of corporate finance and treasurer in 2010 and to senior vice president of planning in 2012. His history on the OPS side is less than his predecessor.
The person charged with making SMS work for Allegiant is Jennifer Bartenstein. After graduation from Embry Riddle, she entered the world of Internal Evaluation Program (safety), ASAP, ATOS, etc. Now in her tenth year as an aviation safety professional, she has acted as a Safety Management System coordinator. Most relevantly Jennifer managed the completion of the FAA SMS Gap Analysis to exit SMS Level 2 with another carrier. To assure that SMS was accepted by all at her previous carrier, she was assigned to create and taught the SMS Education Program to senior leadership. SMS cannot exist as an oral history; so she completed technical writing of SMS requirements into the SMS Manual. So in June 2014 Ms. Bartenstein was highly qualified for her position as Allegiant’s Director Safety Management Systems.
Mr. Gallagher has started several ventures including WestAir (founder), 1978- 1992. Later, Gallagher joined the investment group that founded ValuJet in 1993. He functioned for a time as President and CEO of that airline.
The lack of stability within the Ops and Safety sectors is not a good sign, particularly when the most notable departure had just articulated the principles of SMS and safety culture. With an in house professional well-steeped in the discipline of this proactive approach, it is fair to assume that the systems are in place and the gospel of this safety regime has been well disseminated. The external appearance of a good structure and the visible safety problems of Allegiant Air both suggest that something within the airline is not functioning pursuant to the SMS textbook. Perhaps some external help may be needed to convert this potential into the positive results expected of SMS.
The battle at the picket lines and the safety PR wars will continue until labor and management agree about the right safety approach. SMS, properly adjusted, can be a good mechanism to bring these divergent views to a consensus safety agenda.