April 20, 2018 | Kendall Creighton Is air travel still safe? Within one week, 60 Minutes ran an investigative report on Allegiant Air’s safety record. And Southwest Airlines blew an engine at 30,000 feet, killing one passenger. Throw in years of Boeing 787 engine troubles– which have affected Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air India and others – and a lot of questions are raised: Is the no-fault, no-fine culture at FAA and DOT fostering unsafe conditions and degraded air travel? Has deregulation really benefited passengers? Should airlines be reregulated? 60 Minutes did not do a hit piece on Allegiant. The report was just stating facts. When Allegiant has four times more incidents than other airlines, something is not right. Many of the problems mentioned in the piece are ones that have not been reported before. In response, Allegiant refused to have someone appear on camera. Instead, the company released a stilted, carefully crafted press release while attempting to hide data. This all raises red flags. Back in 2014, FlyersRights.org warned about allowing the 787 Dreamliner to fly as much as 330 minutes from a landing zone. Now, due to engine concerns, the FAA has reduced this to 140 minutes, impacting about a quarter of the Dreamliner fleet. When FlyersRights.org met with Boeing’s top expert and asked what the chances were of a two-engine failure, there was no answer. This week’s Southwest engine failure should raise the question again. When safety is not a top priority We have an abundance of facts that suggest not only Allegiant but also Southwest cut maintenance costs in favor of profits. Currently, accident investigators are zeroing in on the causes of Southwest’s in-flight calamity this week that saw a woman passenger die after she was partially sucked out of a shattered window. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board says a fan blade inside one of the Boeing 737’s engines appears to have separated, possibly due to metal fatigue, blowing apart the cowling and piercing the fuselage with debris. Southwest has been fined millions for maintenance issues since 2009, says a CBC report. In the summer of 2016, a Southwest flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Florida after an engine blade separated, ripped a foot-long hole in its wing. Southwest is the world’s largest operator of 737s, with its 700-plus fleet composed entirely of the workhorse plane. There have been persistent concerns about how the discount carrier maintains them. Airline safety rating services have mixed opinions of Southwest’s record. For example, airlineratings.com gives Southwest only four out of seven possible stars – the lowest rating of any American carrier – on the basis of past fatalities and a failure to complete a special international safety audit. Our View Greed has triumphed over fear in the minds of too many airline managements. The FAA needs to step up and reverse its misguided no-fault, no-fine policy on safety violations and problems. This means issuing a mandatory directive to Southwest and other airlines to promptly follow the manufacturer’s recommendation to inspect 737 engine fan blades with ultrasound, not just visual inspections, and to ground aircraft that fail the tests. It also means directing helicopter operators to retrofit their fleets to comply with 20-year crash-worthy measures and to reject the industry’s preference for another 10-year delay. Retrofitting could prevent, about 50 unnecessary deaths annually of the kind seen in recent crashes in the Grand Canyon and the East River in NYC. The FAA must enforce real fines for safety violations; larger fines for repeat violations; much, much larger fines for cover-ups; and ultimately suspension of unsafe airline licenses. Finally, safety and consumer rule violations must be made public, especially DOT No Action letters and FAA Letters of Instruction that are now secret and which the DOT has not released despite FOIA requests by FlyersRights.org. Paul Hudson President, FlyersRights.org Sun Country Airlines Imagine this happening: Your airline strands you in a foreign country and says, sorry we can’t help you. This is what happened to hundreds of Sun Country Airlines passengers after the carrier canceled their flights home from Mexico last weekend. Sun Country made the decision it could not spare additional aircraft to fly and rescue the stranded passengers. The company said that would force it to cancel other flights where those aircraft were scheduled to be deployed. Sun Country is a small Minneapolis-based charter operator. It appears the airline’s new owners, investment buyout firm Apollo Global Management does not “do” customer service. You know, like not abandoning passengers when it snows in Minnesota. It was a horribly callous, calculated bottom-line dollar judgment that backfired.