Pilot Scorches Allegiant Air on Safety

           LAS VEGAS (CN) – With one engine smoking and “acrid smoke” in the passenger cabin just after takeoff, a commercial pilot turned his plane around and evacuated all 141 passengers – and Allegiant Air fired him for “not placing company profits above safety,” the pilot claims in court.
     The pilot’s attorney called it “the most egregious employment action I’ve encountered in several decades of aviation law.”
     Two months before the incident, the Aviation Mechanics Coalition wrote a searing letter to Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration, citing a “disconcerting” number of “air returns and diversions due to maintenance-related issues” on Allegiant Air flights.
     Jason Kinzer had 141 passengers and four crew members aboard Allegiant Air Flight 864 on June 8, bound for Hagerstown, Md. from St. Petersburg, Fla.
     Shortly after takeoff, not yet at 5,000 feet, “one or more of the cabin crew reported to Capt. Kinzer and the first officer that acrid smoke or chemical fumes from an undetectable source was emanating from the rear of the passenger cabin and that it was being detected and inhaled by the passengers as well,” Kinzer says in his Nov. 10 lawsuit in Clark County Court.
     Repeatedly citing 14 CFR, Part 91, on the responsibility of a commercial pilot, Kinzer says it was his duty and obligation to turn the plane around for the sake of passenger safety, declare an emergency to air traffic control and land at the St. Petersburg airport.
     The emergency became even clearer when the airport’s fire personnel told Kinzer: “‘I’m showing some smoke on your number one engine’ and urged the crew to shut it down,” Kinzer says in the complaint.
     Shutting down the engine and discharging the engine’s fire extinguisher did not stop the “acrid burning smell,” so Kinzer ordered his crew to prepare for an evacuation, and notified air traffic control.
     Much to his surprise, Kinzer says, “a person who did not identify himself or his authority, over the air traffic control authority, commanded the cockpit crew to ‘hold off on your evacuation.'”
     The complaint continues: “The air traffic controller admonished the persons on the frequency that they must identify themselves when using the air traffic frequency, to which there was no response. Capt. Kinzer requested an identification of the person making this command, to which a response from the unidentified person was a repeat of the command, ‘I’m telling you not to evacuate yet,’ without giving the source of authority or reason to make such a command.”
     After a minute passed, Kinzer says, he and the ground controller asked again why the evacuation should be delayed, and got no response.
     He landed the plane and evacuated it. Kinzer and a flight attendant carried one passenger, a paraplegic, off the plane.
     A transcription of the 7 minutes of conversation between Kinzer, ground control and the unidentified voice is attached to the complaint as an exhibit.
     “Smoke in the cabin is obviously a major safety concern and there is no responsibility I take more seriously than protecting my passengers and crew,” Kinzer said in a statement. “All I’m asking for is a recognition that evacuating the plane was the only safe course of action and a commitment from Allegiant to put safety first so my colleagues never have to worry that doing the right – and safe – thing could cost them their jobs.”
     Allegiant fired him on July 23, in a letter of termination attached to the complaint.
     The seven-sentence letter, firing him immediately, called the evacuation “entirely unwarranted,” and says it “compromised the safety of your crew and your passengers and led directly to the injuries.”
     The letter says his responsibility as an air captain is to “operat(e) each aircraft safely, smoothly and efficiently and striving to preserve the Company’s assets, aircraft, ground equipment, fuel and the personal time of our employees and customers. You failed to exhibit these behaviors during Flight 864.”
     In other words, Kinzer says in the lawsuit, Allegiant Air fired him for “not placing company profits above safety.”
     His attorney Michael Pangia said in a statement: “This is the most egregious employment action I’ve encountered in several decades of aviation law. Allegiant Air is retaliating against a pilot for protecting his passengers.”
     In a rather devastating April letter to Congress the FAA, an airline union and the public, the Aviation Mechanics Coalition took Allegiant Air to task for “Air Returns and Diversions due to Maintenance-related Issues September 2014 Through March 2015.”
     The letter – sent two months before Kinzer evacuated Flight 864 – says Allegiant Air has had a “disconcerting” number of flights returned, diverted or takeoffs aborted due to maintenance issues.
     The coalition said it tried to tally Allegiant’s recent flight diversions, but because the airline is too small to trigger mandatory reporting to the FAA, it’s impossible to know how many diversions occurred during any period of time, but it identified dozens from September 2014 through March 2015. Summaries of the incident take up 11 of the letter’s 13 pages.
     The coalition says Allegiant has 70 aircraft that average more than 22 years since their date of manufacture and that average 5.5 hours of flight time each day, which is less than half the industry average.
     “We find it disconcerting that an airline with such a small fleet has experienced such a large number of schedule disruptions due to mechanical issues,” the coalition wrote.
     It describes Allegiant Air as an “ultra low cost carrier based in Enterprise, Nev.”
     It continues: “Allegiant Air is run by CEO Maurice Gallagher, and up until Oct. 1, President Andrew Levy. Both can trace their roots back to another low cost carrier, ValuJet, and were in place when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades due to a cargo compartment fire caused by errors committed by contract maintenance employees.”     
     Allegiant declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said:
     “Any and every decision about our flight crews is made first and foremost with the safety of Allegiant’s passengers in mind. While we are not able to comment on specific employment matters or lawsuits at this time, we never compromise on our commitment to safety. We take any employee termination with great seriousness and ensure that a thorough investigation, collecting facts from all stakeholders, is conducted before any decision is made.     
     “Allegiant has a culture that values the safety of our passengers and crew above all else. As such, we have high standards for all of our team members. We expect that all team members, particularly flight crews, exercise sound judgment in performing their duties to ensure that the wellbeing of our passengers is never compromised.
     “Additionally, we expect that when team members are found to have acted in a manner that is inconsistent with the safe operation of the airline, that those individuals will take responsibility for their actions and take appropriate steps to improve future performance.”
     Kinzer seeks punitive damages for defamation, wrongful termination and emotional distress.
     He is represented by Michael Pangia, of Washington, D.C., and Michael Urban, of Las Vegas.

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