Questions about airport policy involving emergency communications

FOX 13 uncovered a new policy at St. Pete-Clearwater Airport that raises questions when it comes to transparency in an emergency situation with an aircraft.

The policy shift comes after a summer full of bad press and mechanical issues for Allegiant Airlines, which makes up the majority of the secondary airport's traffic.

On July 3, Allegiant Flight 977 -- from Ashville, North Carolina en route to Punta Gorda -- was diverted to St. Pete-Clearwater.  Initially, the airline said the diversion was weather-related. Later, airport spokeswoman Michele Routh told a reporter an emergency landing was prompted when a warning light went off in the cockpit.

The incident triggered an Alert 2, which means fire and medical personal were on standby to deal with an emergency on the Tarmac.  The plane landed safely and the passengers were put on a new aircraft before continuing on to Punta Gorda.

Allegiant did later acknowledge that weather wasn't the only concern, but only after Routh reported the indicator light issue.

According to e-mails obtained by FOX 13 in a public records request, the next day, Routh received a message from a media relations representative with Allegiant. In that message, the employee chastised Routh for revealing the larger issue behind the emergency landing and asked her not to give that kind of information out to the public again.

Routh, in a response, agreed not to report on the causes of a similar emergency and said in the future she would forward all inquiries to Allegiant.

For two weeks, FOX 13 has tried to get an on-camera interview with airport administration to answer questions about why the airport changed its communication policy only after Allegiant asked it to hide information. Airport officials have refused an interview, but did release several statements.

In the statements they explain that information received by the control tower is often preliminary and may change. In one statement, airport director Tom Jewsbury writes, "PIE will not speculate to avoid providing inaccurate reporting."

Yet the much larger Tampa International Airport says it has no policy prohibiting it from giving out information about the cause behind an emergency. TIA says it would give such information out to the media and the public.