Georgia lawsuit questions Spirit Airlines' safety

Spirit CEO talks about safety record

ATLANTA — After an engine failure aboard a Spirit Airlines flight, Atlanta passengers are asking a federal court if the budget airline cut corners when it came to their safety.

Passengers Ben Askew and Sam Madanat told Channel 2’s Rachel Stockman that they were aboard Spirit Airlines Flight 165, traveling back to Atlanta, in October of 2013. They said that soon after their flight left the Dallas-Fort Worth airport the chaos began.

“As soon as my eyes shut, you just hear ‘boom,’ a huge explosion,” Madanat told Stockman. “Smoke started coming inside. When I saw that right there, I was like, this is it.”

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According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, shortly after flight 165 left Dallas, one of the plane’s two jet engines failed. After an audible bang and engine fire warnings, the flight crew shut down the engine and the plane returned to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The report said aircraft damage was minor.

According to the NTSB, a final report is pending an ongoing investigation.

Cellphone video from that flight showed light-colored smoke entering the aircraft through the cabin’s ventilation system. One passenger sent this text his wife: “Ashlee, I love you. Make sure my kids know that forever.”

“Things started spiraling out of control, there were different noises coming from different parts of the plane,” Askew told Stockman. “Between the screams, the cries, the noise of the engine, you didn’t realize what was real. You have so many noises going on, and emotions.”

The 150 passengers aboard Flight 165 said they’ve been trying to get answers from Spirit for more than a year.

“Are they saving money in administrative costs, are they saving money in salaries, or are they saving money in maintenance?” aviation attorney Bruce Lampert asked.

Lambert is representing five of the passengers from Flight 165, the majority of them from the Atlanta metro area, in a federal lawsuit against the budget airline. They allege that Spirit Airlines failed to follow proper procedures to keep passengers safe during the engine failure.

“The oxygen masks never deployed,” Askew told Stockman.

“Could you breathe?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

Passengers say they were required to stay on the smoke-filled aircraft for about a half hour after the plane landed in Dallas.

The lawsuit also questions whether proper inspections were performed on the Spirit aircraft before it left Dallas.

“This aircraft was allowed to go into failure at an altitude on a commercial flight with 150 people on board, and that shouldn’t happen,” Lampert said.

Sprit denies the allegations in the lawsuit, although a spokesperson for the airline said officials cannot comment specifically on pending litigation.

Spirit Airlines spokesman Paul Berry gave Channel 2 this statement in regard to safety and Flight 165:

“Spirit Airlines is, and has always been, committed to the safety of the approximately 12 million customers we have the pleasure of flying each year. We have the youngest fleet of aircraft in the United States, and we have even more new planes ordered. Every airline must meet strict FAA safety criteria, and Spirit meets or exceeds them. While our goal is to have no penalties or fines, the amount of FAA fines against Spirit is extremely small compared to other airlines.

“An NTSB investigation ruled this incident was a contained failure and Spirit did nothing wrong. The Spirit crew on this flight did a fantastic job during this incident taking care of our passengers. The Georgia lawsuit filed as a result of this incident is in its early stages, but Spirit will aggressively defend itself and we are confident the result will be the same as the NTSB ruling.”

This is not the first time that Spirit’s maintenance records were in federal court.

According to court documents, in 2011, nine Spirit Airlines mechanics signed a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging that Spirit did not follow inspection protocols. One mechanic claimed that a manager falsified records.

“If you are putting entries into the log books that are not true, then you’re lying to the FAA and you’re lying about safety,” Lampert said.

The FAA said it could not confirm those specific claims. According to FAA documents, investigators reported that those claims were unsubstantiated because no data, dates or flight numbers were provided by the whistleblower.

Spirit settled the whistleblower lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed amount money. An attorney for that whistleblower declined to comment on the closed case because a confidentiality agreement was part of that settlement.

Through an open records request to the FAA, Channel 2 received pages and pages of complaints by numerous employees and passengers, alleging poor maintenance of Spirit aircraft over the last 10 years. Some complaints and violations resulted in more than $200,000 dollars in fines.

After the FAA investigated one complaint from 2013, it found some Spirit aircraft flying past scheduled maintenance deadlines and “ongoing issues with (Spirit’s) maintenance program,” including “significant issues with (Spirit) oversight.”

One plane flew 3,222 miles past a required maintenance check, according to the investigation results.

Health and cleanliness concerns were also noted. After a September 2014 complaint, inspectors found rats in one aircraft cabin, according to FAA documents.

Stockman spoke with longtime pilot and aviation attorney David Boone about airline safety, and his analysis of Flight 165’s engine failure.

“Whether that failure was a result of something that Spirit Airlines did, or whether it was a result of a failure to do an inspection, we don’t know,” Boone said.

He also told Stockman that violations are part of doing business in a heavily regulated industry.

“It is always a concern to me if someone (in) anything to do with aviation doesn’t follow the rules,” Boone said. “In the courtroom with the judge presiding, you should have the best evidence possible to decide what the truth is.”

But Askew, Madanat and other passengers said they are convinced that Spirit cut corners that day.

“You can’t put a price on life,” Madanat said.

Madanat said what was almost worse was the way that Spirit treated the passengers when they were safely on the ground. After waiting more than 30 minutes to be evacuated from the aircraft, Spirit gave the passengers vouchers.

“They had the nerve to offer us a $7 voucher,” Askew told Stockman. “Even if they gave me free flights for life, I will never fly with you guys ever again.”

According to passengers, after they complained for several weeks, Spirit ultimately offered them $100 vouchers off any flight.