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Allegiant Air's problems get national attention. And new data says it's not getting better

Watch smoke fill a plane cabin and passengers evacuate at Fresno airport

Passengers on an Allegiant flight from Las Vegas noticed a hazy smoke filling the cabin shortly after landing at the Fresno International Airport on Sept. 25, 2017. Here's video of the scene.
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Passengers on an Allegiant flight from Las Vegas noticed a hazy smoke filling the cabin shortly after landing at the Fresno International Airport on Sept. 25, 2017. Here's video of the scene.

Allegiant Air, long a target of complaints by passengers over flight delays at the small- and mid-sized airports it serves, is coming under even greater scrutiny following an investigative report by the CBS program "60 Minutes" into the airline's track record of safety and mechanical issues.

At Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where Allegiant is the only airline providing nonstop flights to Las Vegas, Allegiant's history of frequent delays is familiar to passengers. The "60 Minutes" report, however, highlights not flight delays, but mechanical issues that led to in-air breakdowns, aborted takeoffs, and emergency landings in recent years.

And new data indicates Allegiant's problems have continued into 2018, with a third of its Fresno flights taking off late in January.

The low-cost, no-frills airline is the only company with flights between Fresno and Las Vegas. It flew 188 round trips from January through May 2018. It has the highest rate of delayed departures from Fresno.

Allegiant was founded in Fresno about 20 years ago but is now headquartered in Las Vegas. It has built a robust business based on a model of no-frills, low-fare service from small- and mid-sized airports to popular recreation destinations like Las Vegas or St. Petersburg, Florida.

The CBS report that aired Sunday expanded on a 2016 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that scrutinized thousands of Allegiant's safety and maintenance records from the Federal Aviation Administration. "60 Minutes" discovered more than 100 mechanical issues with the potential to endanger passenger safety from January 2016 through October 2017.

That period includes one weekend last summer in which Allegiant — and its passengers — suffered through the cancellation or rescheduling of five scheduled flights between Fresno and Las Vegas. During a 48-hour period, the airline scrubbed 11 outgoing flights from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, including two flights to Fresno.

In a statement issued Sunday night, Allegiant's vice president of operations, Eric Gust, defended the airline and assailed the "60 Minutes" report as "irresponsible" and "grossly misleading." Gust dismissed the investigation as covering incidents that "are years old."

But among the sources CBS correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed were a trio of Fresno residents who were aboard an Allegiant flight from Las Vegas to Fresno last September. "Allegiant Flight 514 had just landed in Fresno … and was rolling to the gate, when it suddenly stopped short as the cabin began to fill up with fumes and smoke."

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A still photo from video aboard a September 2017 Allegiant Air flight from Las Vegas to Fresno shows people breathing through their clothing to avoid inhaling fumes that filled the cabin after the airplane landed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. A flight attendant can be seen handing out dampened napkins to passengers. CBS News 60 Minutes

Scott Shuemake and his brother and sister-in-law, Chris and Shanyl Shuemake, told Kroft they were kept aboard the plane for about 12 to 15 minutes as a white haze flowed into the cabin. The flight crew told them to breathe through their clothes and handed out wet cocktail napkins. "We're like, 'Open the damn door. We just need some fresh air,'" Scott Shuemake said.

Eventually, the Shuemakes said the flight crew asked passengers to gather their carry-on bags, exit the airplane through a rear stairway and cross the taxiway to the terminal.

CBS reported the airline acknowledged the fumes were "a hazardous hydraulic fluid" called Skydrol 4.

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Fresno residents Scott Shuemake, center, and his brother and sister-in-law Chris Shuemake, right, and Shanyl Shoemake talk to "60 Minutes" about their experience of an Allegiant airplane filling with white smoke after landing at Fresno Yosemite International Airport in September 2017. CBS News 60 Minutes

Before this year, Allegiant's problems with flight delays could be derived only from passengers sharing their experiences and from third-party flight-tracking websites. The Bee's assessment of those sources last year indicated that from April through July, just over one-third of Allegiant's flights from Fresno were taking off at least 15 minutes late. The average length of the delay was about 70 minutes; some were postponed by several hours.

Starting in January, however, Allegiant was required to submit reports of its on-time performance to the FAA, which makes the data publicly available. Those figures show that of 36 Allegiant flights taking off from Fresno to Las Vegas in January, 12 flights — one out of three — were more than 15 minutes late leaving the terminal gate. The average delay on those 12 flights was more than 1.5 hours; the longest delay was 4 hours, 40 minutes, and one other flight was late by almost four hours.

Among all airlines serving Fresno, 162 out of 819 flights took off late in January — nearly one out of five. Of the four carriers besides Allegiant, only Mesa Airlines had a higher rate of delays. Of Mesa's 64 flights from Fresno to Phoenix under the American Eagle brand, 31 were delayed by 15 minutes or more.

Dozens of commenters on The Bee's Facebook page expressed plenty of concern and criticism of Allegiant after the "60 Minutes" story aired Sunday night.

"When (Allegiant) cancelled our flight back to Fresno we rented a car to drive back," Fresno resident Andres Roldan wrote. "Talking to the rep at the car rental place he says, 'We LOVE Allegiant, they give us so much business from people like yourselves with all their cancellations."

Another Fresno resident, Larry Robinson, said he doesn't bother booking on the airline now. "Allegiant Air is so unreliable that we quit flying to Las Vegas from Fresno," he wrote. "We drive six hours and arrive in Vegas much earlier than Allegiant."

Nationwide, Allegiant flew 6,814 scheduled flights in January. Of those, 1,376 flights — just over 20 percent — were delayed by an average of 67 minutes. Another 58 flights were canceled and 26 others diverted to other airports, according to FAA figures.

CBS noted in its report that Allegiant's number of service difficulty reports to the FAA were down significantly in recent months, possibly as a result of the airline replacing some of its aging McDonnell Douglas MD-83 airplanes with newer Airbus A319 jets. However, The Bee's research shows that in January, 23 of Allegiant's 36 flights from Fresno to Las Vegas were aboard MD-83s built between 1986 and 1994, including nine of the 12 flights that were delayed. The remaining flights were aboard newer Airbus A319s manufactured between 2004 and 2006.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.
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