Low-Fare Airlines, 10 Years After ValuJet Flight 592

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.

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.

"Frankly, I don't notice any difference between flying low-cost carriers like Spirit or JetBlue and a major carrier like American," said Mitzi Donoff, of Boca Raton, who takes frequent pleasure trips with her family.

She added that she is particularly impressed with JetBlue.

"They run a smooth operation," she said. "They seem to get you where you want to go quicker and cancel fewer flights."

Lobbying goes on

Many families of ValuJet victims insist airline safety still needs to be carefully monitored.

They have lobbied federal authorities, including Congress, for everything from mandatory baby seats on airliners to properly working rudders.

For the past decade, Carol Rietz has attended every court and safety hearing involving the ValuJet crash, trying to understand why her son Howard, 21, was killed.

"I want to make things so this won't happen to anyone else," she said.

Howard, an architecture student at the University of Miami, had booked a seat on Flight 592, looking forward to spending the summer working as a lifeguard, offering a women's water aerobics class and playing water polo near his family home in Franklin, Tenn.

"He was part fish," said Carol Rietz. "He loved the outdoors; he loved summer."

Just before leaving for the airport to pick Howard up, his parents were notified he died in the crash.

Now, she said, every holiday is difficult.

"I don't celebrate Mother's Day," she said.

Ken Kaye can be reached at kkaye@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7911.