Discount airline accused of cutting corners with old jets

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The Independent Online
Federico Pena, the US Secretary of Transportation, yesterday refused to order the grounding of the discount airline ValuJet, despite a protracted series of safety incidents culminating in Saturday's crash in the Florida Everglades in which all 109 people on board were killed.

This weekend's disaster was not only the worst domestic accident in the US since the 132 lives lost in the still unexplained crash of a USAir Boeing 737 near Pittsburgh on 8 September 1994 - it is also the first involving one of the new generation of no-frills, cheap fare carriers which are starting to transform the air transport market here.

None has been more aggressive or successful than the Atlanta-based ValuJet, set up 30 months ago and which now operates 50 jets flying to 31 cities across the eastern half of the nation. But expansion has placed growing strains on staff and infrastructure, not to mention ValuJet's mostly elderly fleet of DC-9s - among them the 27-year-old aircraft which came to grief in Flight 592 from Miami.

After a string of mishaps, including three aircraft which skidded off runways earlier this year and a fire aboard a DC-9 last June as it prepared for takeoff at Atlanta, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a thorough inspection of ValuJet earlier this year, and the airline itself announced it was slowing its expansion plans to "concentrate on product integrity".

But the FAA probe gave a clean bill of health. "They responded to all our recommendations, they did all we asked," Mr Pena told the CBS programme Face The Nation. "They've even tried to slow their growth because they expanded too quickly. If they didn't meet out standards we would have grounded them; that's why this crash is so surprising."

A shaken Lewis Jordan, ValuJet's president, was equally firm in his airline's defence. "We never grew faster than we were sure we were operating safely and reliably," he said, refuting thinly-masked accusations from the US media that ValuJet had recklessly cut corners in a pursuit of profits where margins are small.

Despite their age, ValuJet's DC-9s with their Pratt & Whitney engines were among the safest, most proven aircraft in history, he insisted.

But doubts about ValuJet and others of its ilk are bound to grow. Hitherto cheap fares - a one way Washington-Atlanta flight on ValuJet last month cost $108 (pounds 72) compared with the $367 (pounds 245) fare on Delta - have for passengers far outweighed the airline's many shortcomings of punctuality and comfort, and its rather amateurish feel. But perhaps no longer.

The answer - and with it perhaps the very survival of ValuJet - may well depend on the cause of the accident, for which rescuers were searching as they scoured the snake- and alligator-infested marshes of the Everglades. Thus far, however, no firm pointers have emerged.

Although a recently disclosed FAA memo spoke of a "significant decrease" in the experience of new pilots taken on by the airline, the witness account of the accident - of an aircraft making a sweeping turn in its apparent attempt to return to Miami before plunging at a 75 degree angle into the swamp - betrays no hint of pilot error. Mr Jordan declined to identify the captain of Flight 592 but said he had over 8,000 hours of cockpit experience.

Nor is there any firm clue to a mechanical cause for the accident, despite unconfirmed reports that the pilots reported smoke in the cabin just beforehand, and an even more alarming claim that the DC-9 which crashed had in the past two years been forced to return to the airport shortly after take-off six times because of mechanical problems.

With no survivors to describe the aircraft's last moments, the best hope for investigators lies in recovery of the DC-9's cockpit voice recorder and black box flight recorder, both fitted with electronic bleepers to locate them after a crash.

For ValuJet and every other cut-price airline, however, an age of innocence is over. At the very least, the crash will disrupt its hopes of an Olympic- season boom as visitors flock to Atlanta where the games open in July. At worst, it could cause a crisis of confidence from which Valu-Jet never recovers. Such was the fate of Air Florida after one of its aircraft crashed after take-off from Washington's National Airport in 1982.