Low-fare Airlines, Ten Years After the Crash of ValuJet Flight 592

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.

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

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