Allegiant’s MD80’s: ancient, noisy, … and a maintenance mess?

On Friday, September 20th, Allegiant Travel Co canceled 18 of its 121 scheduled flights. The action was taken when FAA discovered that the airline had failed to follow a 2007 directive increasing the frequency for inspections of the four inflatable emergency slides from once every three years to once each year.

An emergency on Monday, September 16th, involved use of the evacuation slides at the airport in Las Vegas, after smoke was observed. FAA investigated and directed Allegiant to report on the status of the slides. “The FAA this week became aware that Allegiant Air may not have inspected some emergency evacuation slides on its MD-80 fleet at required intervals,” Ian Gregor, public affairs manager with the FAA Pacific Division, said in a statement. The airline promptly ‘discovered’ that it had not been complying with a 2007 recommendation by the manufacturer of the slides, Zodiac Aerospace, to overhaul all four inflatable chutes annually on aircraft older than 15 years. Then, the airline began flight cancellations, to immediately conduct the inspections. [article]

Why is Allegiant using MD80’s?

For the simple reason that they are cheap. This is an old plane that sold well forty years ago, because it was more efficient to operate than the Boeing 727. But when compared with today’s newer jet models, the MD80 (and its many variants) is a gas guzzler. And, the MD80 is notoriously noisy, thus far more impactful on people within forty miles of airports, during the approach and climbout phases of flight. For example, this noise is a huge part of the opposition to Allegiant at the airport in Bellingham, WA [KBLI].

The MD80 is very much like a large sedan at a used car lot. A buyer can spend a lot less on equipment that gets the job done, but at a tradeoff in much more gas consumed, as well as other discomforts such as noise and that ‘old car smell’. But, in the aviation industry, an airline can make money by leasing old equipment, especially if they are careful to market value (and turn the focus away from the negatives). The most infamous example of a U.S. airline following this model was Valujet, a low-cost airline that grew too fast in the mid-1990’s, accumulated a disturbing maintenance record, and then abruptly ceased operations in their fourth year. Valujet’s logo included a cute, smiling airplane.

The safety record of the MD80 is also not stellar, though this may have more to do with maintenance cost-cutting than with aircraft design. Two of the most horrific U.S. airline accidents, in which passengers endured minutes of shear terror before being disintegrated upon impact, were the Valujet Flight 592 crash (Everglades, May 1996) and the Alaska Flight 261 crash (near Santa Barbara, January 2000). Both of these accident investigations uncovered serious maintenance deficiencies, one involving the jack screw that controls the horizontal stabilizer, and the other involving fire hazards with a defective relay switch.

As for passenger comfort, the MD80 is a mixed bag. The ride inside is pleasantly quiet in the front, far from the rear-mounted engines. But, if you happen to have a seat in the back rows, the noise and vibration is terribly unpleasant, because you are effectively sitting between the two engines.

How does Allegiant save money flying the MD80?

This is not that clear. The aircraft reportedly costs a tenth of what a Boeing 737 costs, so there is that initial cost savings. But, the operational cost is much higher. The most successful U.S. airline today is Southwest, and they use a fleet of 554 Boeing 737’s. Southwest pays more for newer and far more efficient aircraft, and averages more than six flights per day for each aircraft. In contrast, Allegiant averages just two or three flights per day for their MD80 fleet. Perhaps the real savings is in the fact that Allegiant can buy these ‘MD80 used car units’ outright, and the airline is thus not saddled with leasing costs. [article]

Does FAA do anything to discourage use of the MD80?

In a word, ‘No’. In fact, quite the opposite. FAA (as well as DoT Secretary Federico Pena) was a huge cheerleader for Valujet, and it appears FAA is still overly supportive of low-cost, cut-rate airlines.

For example, FAA puts pressure on airport authorities to accommodate the airlines using the MD80. In 2008, Allegiant approached the airport authority at Paine Field in Everett, WA, to discuss starting two roundtrips per week between Everett and Las Vegas. Local officials quickly rejected the proposal. “We’re still very opposed to commercial air service,” said Christopher Schwarzen, spokesman for County Executive Aaron Reardon. “We don’t think it fits with the surrounding community.” FAA then issued a letter warning that the airport authority must negotiate with Allegiant, because of the $57 Million in airport grants received since 1945. In that letter to airport director David Waggoner, Seattle Airports District Office Manager Carol Key said, “Failure to negotiate in good faith may subject the County to an enforcement action” and could put continued receipt of federal funding at risk.

Nor is FAA doing anything to discourage use of the MD80 at small airports near the Canadian border, such as Bellingham, WA, Niagara, NY, and Plattsburgh, NY. As a consequence, passengers who would more efficiently catch flights out of Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, save some money by spending time and gas on long commutes across the border. The environment suffers (in CO2 from the MD80’s, as well as from the excessive airport commute distances), and the Canadian aviation system has its operating funds siphoned away.

So, in the big picture, the MD80 is a gas-hog and the worst performing aircraft today, in U.S. passenger aviation. And, FAA has a great opportunity here, to help the environment, as well as airport neighbors.