Allegiant Airlines Capt. Jason Kinzer was feeling tense.
It was June 8. With the smell of acrid smoke filling his cabin, he’d just made an emergency landing at Florida's St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, where ground fire crews had informed him that his No. 1 engine was smoking. Despite cutting power to the engine, the smell hadn’t dissipated, Kinzer said, and he was worried about his 141 passengers.
An unidentified voice on his radio had advised him to hold off on evacuating the plane, then ceased transmission. But without knowing the source of the directive or what was going on with the jet, Kinzer was wary.
He knew an emergency evacuation could be risky. But a smoky plane can be risky, too.
“This is a tough corner to be backed in because you have very little information and you may have a very small amount of time to get it right. ... How long do you wait?” Kinzer said in an exclusive interview with ABC News’ David Kerley. “I felt the best decision was to get them to safety and get them away from an airplane that was smoking.”
So he popped the emergency slides and ordered an evac.
Six weeks later, he was fired.
In a copy of Kinzer’s termination letter, provided to ABC News, Allegiant called the evacuation of Flight 864 “entirely unwarranted” and stated that Kinzer had failed in his duty to “operat[e] each aircraft safely, smoothly and efficiently and striv[e] to preserve the company’s assets.”
Several passengers had sustained minor injuries during the evacuation, and two were transported to a local hospital, according to airport records.
Still, Kinzer maintains the decision to evacuate was the “safer choice.”
Retaliation? Kinzer Files Suit
In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Kinzer’s lawyer claims Allegiant ousted Kinzer “maliciously” because he hadn’t prioritized company assets and negative media exposure above passenger wellbeing.
“It’s very clear to me that their prime directive is profit, not passenger safety,” Kinzer told Kerley.
The company told ABC News they were not able to comment on specific employment matters like Kinzer’s, but maintained it is "standard practice only to terminate individuals when we believe it to be the only reasonable outcome based on their conduct or performance."
“However, at Allegiant we have a culture that values the safety of our passengers and crew above all else,” the airline said in a statement. “We do not ever take termination lightly and ensure that a thorough investigation, collecting facts from all stakeholders, is conducted before any decision is made.”
According to the lawsuit, Allegiant may have disregarded a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that places the responsibility for emergency decision-making with the pilot. Kinzer said that’s part of the reason he’s suing the airline.
“It’s important to me that we set a tone that safety should always be a pilot’s decision,” Kinzer said. “I want to leave safety in the hands of air crews.”
A ‘Dangerous’ Message
Moreover, the suit alleges that Kinzer’s termination “sends a dangerous warning message to other Allegiant Air pilots to place corporate financial concerns and profits as a priority over safety of the passengers, crew, and the general public in times of an emergency.”
“At no point should an air crew ever be forced to think about retribution or what may come of a decision in the interest of safety just because it may cost an airline a little bit of media exposure or perhaps a few bucks,” Kinzer said.
“It’s just not right to set a tone where an air crew had to worry about their job, their livelihood, their families over making a safety related decision,” he added.
Since his firing, Kinzer has been “blackballed” by the industry, the suit alleges. Though he says he had a clean flight record prior to the June 8 incident, he’s been unable to find a job.
Allegiant’s PR Problem
Kinzer’s lawsuit is just the latest in a series of public relations crises for the discount airline, which has been beset by issues since the summer.
A low-fuel emergency landing in Fargo and an aborted takeoff in Las Vegas drew increased scrutiny from the FAA. And an industry union said it had identified 65 instances of maintenance-related issues, including aborted takeoffs, diversions, and gate returns, in just seven months.
But the company says its planes are safe.
“Allegiant is a safe airline,” it said in a statement. “We are proud of our safety record and we are committed to advancing a culture of safety and continuous improvement throughout the organization.”
Following the incident in Fargo, Allegiant said it works closely with the FAA and was not made aware of heightened FAA surveillance.
The airline also criticized the union report, which it says was prepared by people who had "never examined any aircraft in Allegiant’s fleet."
Regardless, Kinzer and his attorney, Mike Pangea, say they believe Allegiant resented the increased media scrutiny prompted by his emergency landing.
“When you look at the record that this airline has been having -- which rightfully causes them embarrassment -- this is another episode that brings attention,” Pangia told ABC News.
“They did not terminate Captain Kinzer because he made what they considered to be a bad decision as far as safety,” Pangia added, “but he made a ‘bad decision’ as far as exposing the company to embarrassment.”
ABC News' Matt Hosford and Daniel Steinberger contributed to this report.