Safety of discount airlines questioned


THE crash of the ValuJet DC-9 in Florida on Saturday has raised questions in the US about the safety of the "peanut airlines" which have flourished in recent years, writes Conor O'Clery.

ValuJet is one of a number of discount airlines which cut costs to the point where a packet of peanuts is all a passenger can expect as in flight nourishment. Pilots are paid as little as $26,000 (£17,000) a year.

The airline does not assign seats to passengers, the cabin staff wear sporting gear and hold quiz games for passengers, and pilots tell jokes during the flight. No meals are served, even to the pilots.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ordered a thorough safety inspection of the low fare airline earlier this year after it experienced several mishaps in its first 2 1/2 years of operation. Almost all involved aircraft skidding off runways. This happened in January 1994 in Dallas, closing the airport for two hours, in January 1996 at Dulles and Atlanta airports, and in February at Savannah, Georgia, when 74 passengers made an emergency evacuation.

The most serious accident occurred in June 1985. The Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9A engine of a ValuJet flight failed on the ground at Atlanta and a fragment severed a fuel line. The aircraft caught fire and was destroyed, but the 57 passenger and live crew escaped.

The FAA made a number of recommendations to improve safety procedures, and a spokesman said nothing serious was found and that ValuJet had followed its suggestions. However, a recent FAA memo reported that there was a "significant decrease in the experience level of new pilots being hired by ValuJet as well as other positions such as mechanics, flight dispatchers, etc".

The chairman of the independent National Transportation Safety Board visited the airlines headquarters in Atlanta on March 17th to discuss safety.

ValuJet president, Mr Lewis Jordan, said yesterday he did not think the level of safety was decided by the amount paid to a pilot. He said the airline had passed a FAA safety review in February and "we plan to put primary focus on the highest level of safety".

ValuJet started with two aircraft in 1993 and now has more than 50 jets, using Atlanta, Georgia, as a hub. Recently it started operating out of New York's La Guardia Airport. Last year it made a profit of $ 67 million.

ValuJet and other cut price carriers like Southwest and Western Pacific have increased competition for established routes, forcing larger airlines to cut prices and cabin service. Costs on ValuJet flights are so low, it made a profit on every flight, with 45 per cent of its seats filled.

The 1995 fire aboard a ValuJet in Atlanta may offer a clue to Saturday's crash, which followed reports of smoke in the cockpit. Investigators found that corrosion had been covered over rather than fixed at a Turkish repair facility before ValuJet purchased the aircraft. ValuJet has purchased several aircraft from Turkish Airlines.