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."