Low-Fare Airlines, 10 Years After ValuJet Flight 592

Along with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the ValuJet disaster forced low-fare carriers to "either grow up or die."

May 7--Low-fare airlines aren't just cheaper. They also are less prone to mishandle baggage, have slightly better on-time records and have about the same accident rates as major airlines, according to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis.

The findings show why low-fare carriers have steadily eroded the dominance of the major airlines, which have been forced to streamline to remain competitive.

"Virtually all of the low-fare fleets now have new aircraft, their own maintenance departments and are better managed," said Stuart Klaskin, a Miami-based aviation consultant.

It wasn't always that way.

Ten years ago, low-fare carriers generally flew old airliners and operated with little federal oversight. Then, on May 11, 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 slammed into the Everglades, triggering major changes.

The crash killed all 105 passengers and five crewmembers, the result of a series of problems, including improper maintenance and the airline's lack of control over its maintenance contractor.

Along with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which had a profound impact on the entire airline industry, the ValuJet disaster forced low-fare carriers to "either grow up or die," Klaskin said.

Low-fare carriers -- also known as low-cost carriers -- now impress customers with reliable service, even if they offer only barebones amenities, such as limited or no meal service. They also keep costs down by flying shorter point-to-point trips and using only one or two models of aircraft.

Not to be confused with regional airlines, which fly small jets or turboprops on short hops, low-fare airlines generally fly medium-size jetliners and crisscross the nation.

An important ingredient in their success: an emphasis on safety, evident by the fact that their flight schedules increased by almost 30 percent in the past 10 years, yet accident rates remained stable, analysts say.

From 1996 to 2005, the busiest low-fare carriers that fly into South Florida -- not including Ted or the now-defunct Song, which are considered part of United and Delta, respectively -- had a cumulative rate of .021 fatal accidents per 100,000 flights.

That is slightly better than the .025 fatal accident rate of the six major carriers, though the difference is statistically insignificant.

"Basically, if you're going from point A to point B, the data shows it really doesn't matter which carrier you use," said Mark Lacagnina, senior editor of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va.

Low-fare carriers, which in South Florida include Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit, ATA, Alaska and Frontier, also have focused on improving basic operations.

On average, they generated 4.4 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers last year, or about a third fewer than the 5.9 reports for the major carriers, including American, Delta, United, Northwest, Continental and US Airways. US Airways recently merged with America West and now calls itself the world's largest low-fare airline.

Further, 77.7 percent of low-fare flights arrived on time in 2005, compared with 76.4 percent for the majors. Low-fare carriers also saw fewer delays and canceled flights last year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records, although, again, the difference is negligible, experts say. The overall result: Since the ValuJet disaster, the dominant low-fare carriers have seen passenger traffic almost double, from 83.7 million in 1995 to 165 million last year, even though they, too, have had to raise fares to cover basic expenses, such as fuel.

Low-fare carriers increased their share of the airline market, from 18 percent of the 452 million passengers flown by mainstream carriers in 1995, to 35 percent of the 470 million passengers in 2005.

Although all airlines have been hit hard by soaring fuel costs, most of the low-fares still have aggressive growth plans, while Delta, United, Northwest and US Airways have filed for bankruptcy.

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