It's only by accident that the public knows about a perilous maintenance lapse on an Allegiant Airlines jet that could have resulted in tragedy. The Federal Aviation Administration investigated the incident, found critical mistakes by the company hired to do the maintenance and then covered up its own findings. The troubling episode undermines confidence in the FAA, which should be forthcoming and transparent when public safety is at stake.
Pilots of an Allegiant jet leaving Las Vegas in mid 2015 aborted takeoff at 138 mph when the plane's nose started lifting up, out of their control. A part connecting the cockpit controls to the plane's elevators had slipped out of place. If that had happened in the air, the pilots would have lost control. Inspectors with Allegiant and the FAA concluded that a piece holding the component together had never been installed when maintenance was performed on the aircraft three months earlier — one small indication of larger problems at AAR Aircraft Services, the national aviation maintenance company that did the work. The FAA's investigator dug further and found that AAR technicians sometimes performed only perfunctory inspections or skipped them altogether and slammed their conduct as reckless and careless, fueled by a company culture that is indifferent to its own errors.
Despite the inspector's recommendation that the company be fined the maximum amount, higher-ups at the FAA saw no need for such a harsh sanction. AAR had already made adequate fixes, in their view. Those included requiring workers to watch safety videos and adding a third inspector to check work when two others failed to notice lapses — hardly the serious corrective measures that are warranted when critical safety steps are being bypassed. That leniency mirrors the FAA's general oversight of Allegiant, which has a well-documented record of mechanical failures. A Tampa Bay Times analysis last year found that Allegiant's planes were four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines. The FAA was content to let the airline police itself and didn't fine or sanction Allegiant, which handles more than 95 percent of passenger traffic at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. This incident, however, is bigger than just Allegiant — AAR does maintenance work for many major airlines as well as the federal government.
And yet none of this would be known except that the FAA accidentally sent its full unredacted investigative file to Times reporter Nathaniel Lash after refusing to produce the full record. What the FAA knowingly provided blacked out its inspector's most critical findings from the public. Did the FAA try to keep that information secret to protect AAR, or because it wanted to conceal its own slap-on-the-wrist handling of the incident? Whatever the reason, the FAA's secrecy is at odds with its core mission of protecting the flying public.
There is plenty of blame to go around in assessing the near-tragedy of Allegiant Flight 436. The airline has too many incidents of mechanical failures and unexpected landings. AAR cannot explain multiple lapses in standard maintenance practices that add up to a systemic problem. But the FAA looks like the worst offender because it is acting on behalf of the public to ensure the airlines are safe. The window the FAA inadvertently opened into its probe of AAR — in which it reversed the recommendation of its own veteran inspector — raises questions about how vigorously the agency is enforcing safety standards across the industry.