When Capt. Jason Kinzer brought Allegiant Air Flight 864 in for an emergency landing on June 8 and ordered the evacuation of passengers from the twin-engine MD-80 jet at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in Florida, he followed what he thought was the safest procedure for his passengers and crew.
But after a six-week investigation during which he was anxiously awaiting his return to the cockpit, Kinzer was fired instead.
Now, Kinzer is bringing a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against Las Vegas-based Allegiant, filing Thursday in Clark County District Court.
“This is the most egregious employment action I’ve encountered in several decades of aviation law,” said Kinzer’s Washington-based attorney, Michael Pangia. “Allegiant Air is retaliating against a pilot for protecting his passengers.”
The airline doesn’t see it that way.
Stating that Allegiant couldn’t comment specifically on employment matters or lawsuits, an airline spokeswoman said the company values safety above everything.
“Allegiant has a culture that values the safety of our passengers and crew above all else,” an airline statement said in response to the suit. “As such, we have high standards for all of our team members. We expect that all team members, particularly flight crews, exercise sound judgment in performing their duties to ensure that the well-being of our passengers is never compromised.
“Additionally, we expect that when team members are found to have acted in a manner that is inconsistent with the safe operation of the airline, that those individuals will take responsibility for their actions and take appropriate steps to improve future performance,” the statement said.
Kinzer’s road to the courtroom began when the three-year Allegiant employee, promoted to captain in December, left the Florida airport for Hagerstown, Md., with 141 passengers and a crew of five aboard.
Just after the flight had become airborne, Kinzer said that he received “frantic calls” from flight attendants that passengers were smelling smoke in the rear of the aircraft. Kinzer made the decision to declare an emergency and return to the airport.
After a routine landing, the jet stopped at the end of a runway and emergency response crews took a look at the plane and its engines.
An emergency responder confirmed that smoke was coming from the plane’s right engine. After consulting with his first officer, Kinzer made the decision to evacuate the plane.
After a conversation between the air-traffic-control tower at the airport, the emergency responders and the flight deck, an unidentified voice entered the discussion, according to a recording of radio transmissions. The man didn’t identify himself in his transmissions and urged the pilot to “hold off on that evacuation, please.”
After two inquiries from the flight deck on who was requesting the delay and why went unanswered, the evacuation was ordered.
Kinzer and the other crew members were interviewed at Allegiant’s Las Vegas headquarters and the pilot said he believed he made the right decision to evacuate the plane.
But after several weeks of silence, Kinzer said he received a call from the human resources department of the airline telling him that he was fired and that he would receive a termination notice by mail.
Kinzer’s termination letter said, “As an Allegiant captain, you are considered the ‘on-scene commander’ and should always demonstrate professionalism, maturity and concern for our customers and your co-workers during their daily work assignments. You do this by operating each aircraft safely, smoothly and efficiently and striving to preserve the company’s assets, aircraft, ground equipment, fuel and the personal time of our employees and customers.
“You failed to exhibit these behaviors during Flight 864. You ordered an evacuation that was entirely unwarranted and, as a result, your conduct and decision-making on June 8, compromised the safety of your crew and your passengers and led directly to the injuries. Furthermore, during a review of the event and in subsequent conversations you have repeatedly insisted that you made a good decision to evacuate the aircraft and, if faced with a similar situation, you would follow the same course of action.
“It is for these reasons that your employment with Allegiant is terminated effective immediately.”
There was no elaboration on what injuries occurred in the incident. The other members of the flight crew were not fired.
Kinzer’s suit seeks damages of more than $10,000 for wrongful termination, defamation, infliction of emotional distress as well as punitive and exemplary damages.
Kinzer said he has not been able to find a new job as a pilot.
Pangia, the lawyer, said Allegiant has not filed an answer to the suit, but that he hopes to begin proceedings quickly. He said he hopes to identify the voice that urged a delay in the evacuation as the case unfolds.
The filing of the suit is the latest skirmish between Allegiant and its pilots, who have been working to negotiate the first union contract the airline has ever had.
The Review-Journal has documented more than 20 emergency landings and aborted takeoffs by Allegiant this year with maintenance issues for the airline’s aging fleet connected to nearly every incident.
Contact Richard N. Velotta at email@example.com or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter: @RickVelotta.