Valujet backlash hits air watchdog

A major shake-up is looming at the Federal Aviation Administration following its failure to tackle the safety problems at Valujet which led to the indefinite grounding of the low-fare airline this week - five weeks after the Florida crash which killed 110 people.

Valujet's closure - officially "voluntary" but in effect coerced by the FAA - was the climax of a month of intense scrutiny by the watchdog agency, which posted inspectors on every Valujet flight in the wake of the DC- 9 crash in the Everglades.

The ultimate indictment is devastating. The month-long check uncovered "system-wide deficiencies" in Valujet's maintenance programmes, doubts about the airworthiness of several aircraft, and "multiple shortcomings" in Valujet's control of the outside contractors.

But the report is also an indictment of the FAA, which well before the crash had identified problems at Valujet but failed to act. The agency had been "lax" and "clearly we have some culpability" the FAA head, David Hinson, said yesterday. This admission is expected to cost the job of Anthony Broderick, associate administrator for certification and regulation of airlines.

For Valujet, which describes the closedown as "grossly unfair", the outlook is bleak. With cash reserves of more than $100m, the airline is not expected to file for bankruptcy. But, according to many industry analysts, it must get back into the air within a month if it is to have a chance of survival.

That goal may however be unattainable. The FAA said it would not re-authorise operations until Valujet "demonstrates appropriate corrective action". The affair is also an acute embarrassment to Federico Pena, the Transportation Secretary, who 24 hours after the crash on 11 May pronounced Valujet to be "a safe airline" despite FAA internal reports suggesting the contrary.

The accident is believed to have been the result of a fire in the cargo hold caused by the explosion of full oxygen containers mistakenly loaded on board.

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