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."

ValuJet Flight 592 remains Florida's deadliest air disaster.

The 27-year-old DC-9 took off from Miami bound for Atlanta. Six minutes into the flight, an inferno erupted in the forward cargo bay. Although Capt. Candalyn Kubeck turned back toward the airport, the twinjet plunged, leaving a gash in the Everglades.

It would later be determined that more than 140 oxygen generators, holding volatile chemicals, had ignited in their packing boxes. Investigators discovered ValuJet's maintenance contractor, SabreTech, had failed to install small plastic safety caps that would have prevented the disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed SabreTech for the packaging errors and ValuJet for failing to closely monitor SabreTech's work. The FAA also was blamed for failing to require firefighting equipment in all cargo holds and to adequately oversee ValuJet.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office lodged 220 felony counts of murder and manslaughter against SabreTech. Federal prosecutors added 23 criminal charges, involving the reckless handling of hazardous material.

Ultimately, the murder and manslaughter charges were dropped; all but one of the federal charges stuck. The defunct company was fined $1 million but paid nothing, saying it had no assets.

In November 1997, ValuJet merged with AirTran, and the ValuJet name disappeared.

Stung by the accident, the FAA took several aggressive steps to improve safety. Among them: Fire detection and suppression equipment were required in all airline cargo holds. Penalties were stiffened for illegally transporting hazardous goods.

Yet, in June, a Transportation Department Inspector General report asserted the airline industry still is plagued by sharp cost-cutting, too much farmed out maintenance and budget carriers growing too fast -- and the FAA is doing little about it.

The FAA disputes that.

Jim Ballough, FAA director of flight standards, said 3,500 FAA inspectors carefully study all facets of every U.S. airline, including their financial conditions, to see if a serious accident is in the making.

He noted that hiring an outside company to perform maintenance, as ValuJet did, is not considered dangerous because the FAA has tightened surveillance on the quality of maintenance work after it is done.

"Keep in mind that contracting maintenance is absolutely nothing new," he said.

Today, the FAA points to the fact that airline accident rates have remained low and that another ValuJet disaster is unlikely.

"After the ValuJet accident, we took a hard look at ourselves. We knew we had to do things differently," Ballough said.

One of the biggest changes: Rather than rely on random inspections, the FAA established a comprehensive oversight program in October 1998. It scrutinizes each component of an airline, from maintenance to crew training, to ensure each is operating properly and further checks whether all the parts work in concert.

Before the program was implemented, the FAA's inspection of the airlines "was more like a kicking the tires and going by a checklist," said Alison Duquette, agency spokeswoman.

Employing ingenuity

Low-fare carriers knew they had to change, too -- to appear better managed, more efficient and safer. They sought to distinguish themselves from major airlines by avoiding chaotic hubs and offering cheap, last-minute, one-way fares.

Some modeled themselves after Southwest Airlines, known for rapid-fire service and finding clever ways to save money. For instance, it flies only one model of aircraft, the Boeing 737, which reduces pilot training and maintenance costs.

"The presence of a large, low-cost, well-run carrier like Southwest was the bedrock that that segment of the industry was able to rebuild its credibility on," Klaskin said.

Other low-fare airlines such as JetBlue went a step further, providing television screens at every seat. Passengers began to find low-fare carriers provided the same level as, or even better service than, the major airlines.

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