Fresno evacuation scrutinized as Allegiant Air's safety record questioned

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- An airline that launched from Fresno almost 20 years ago is under heavy scrutiny now after a "60 Minutes" report about its safety record.

The CBS News program said Allegiant may be the most profitable and dangerous airline in the country, citing their own analysis of public records revealing serious issues in flight.

RELATED: Allegiant Air under fire after '60 Minutes' safety report

The airline responded Monday, calling it a false narrative, and saying safety is at the core of their culture.

One of the incidents cited in the "60 Minutes" report happened on the tarmac at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

RELATED: Smoke prompts airline evacuation after landing at Fresno-Yosemite International

Allegiant Air crew members opened the rear airstairs on Flight 514 last September and let passengers exit the plane after having them wait for several minutes as the cabin filled with smoke right after landing in Fresno.

"It got pretty bad in there," Steve Ramirez told Action News right afterward. "Really smoky, and it got bad in the eyes. My eyes are still burning and a lot of people started coughing. A couple babies were there. They were worried about the babies. So a little panic-struck with most the passengers."

Seven months later, Scott Shuemake found out the smoke he breathed came from a hazardous hydraulic fluid when he watched himself in a "60 Minutes" story about Allegiant and its safety issues.

He described the captain telling everyone to breathe through their shirts and questioned whether the airline wanted them to leave with their carry-ons to make everything look normal.

"60 Minutes" reported finding more than 100 serious mechanical issues reported on Allegiant flights between January 2016 and October 2017 -- and the Fresno incident wasn't even included.

After the story ran, Allegiant issued a statement saying "incidents referenced are years old, and took place before our most recent, comprehensive FAA audit."

"That kind of caught me off guard because obviously, our incident was in September," Shuemake said.

A quick search of the Action News archives uncovered small engine fires on a pair of Fresno Allegiant flights in 2015.

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And on an Action News reporter's Facebook page, a long list of former passengers had complaints about delays and reported mechanical issues.

A spokesperson for the FAA says the agency reviewed Allegiant in 2016 and found no systemic safety issues. And he says this year, the airline has reported incidents like emergency landings and diversions are happening about half as often as they did in 2015.

That could be because the airline is replacing older MD-80 planes, which are responsible for many of the mechanical issues.

Late Monday, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) called on the Federal Department of Transportation's Inspector General to investigate how the FAA oversees airline safety, with a focus on internal communications between Allegiant and the agency.

IN DEPTH: Letter calling for probe of Allegiant oversight

Fresno airport administrators referred us to Allegiant for any comments about safety, but confirmed the airline is transitioning to Airbus planes. They still intermittently fly MD-80s, and our online search showed one flying the night flight on April 16, but no others for a month.

Shuemake says it's a step in the right direction for safety, but he thinks there are management issues as well.

"It's not that we landed and the plane filled with toxic fumes," he said. "It's that we landed, the plane filled with toxic fumes, and they held us on the plane for 12 to 15 minutes while they consulted with headquarters to see what the heck to do about it."

Allegiant launched out of Fresno in 1998, but it went bankrupt two years later and got taken over by the current CEO, Maurice Gallagher, Jr., who held the same position at ValuJet.

He moved the headquarters to Las Vegas.
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