A Decade after the Disaster

It’s been a decade since one of the worst airline disasters in modern US aviation, but in the 10 years since a ValuJet DC-9 plunged into the Florida Everglades just minutes after taking off from Miami’s airport with flammable matter in its hold – oxygen canisters that burst into superheated flame that brought down the used planes, killing all 110 on board Flight 592 to Atlanta – much has changed. Since then, the FAA and the DoT authorities have changed the ways they review a new carrier’s start-up application, the way they inspect all airlines, their rules for hazardous cargoes;  fewer new carriers are being proposed but those that are tend to be well capitalised, as was JetBlue and is Virgin America, they tend to have new fleets, as is the case with both JetBlue and Virgin, a and they tend to have highly focused business plans as its the case with the two transatlantic luxury Startups, Eos and Maxjet.

As for AirTran, the airline itself has survived and of course changed. After surviving an FAA-ordered grounding for three months, ValuJet flew again, by summer of 1997 changing its name to AirTran and attracting an entirely new management team. Today AirTran is usually profitable, always filled and attractive to investors and travellers. It has one of the youngest fleets in the industry, a transformation that it planned before the crash with a major order for the MD-95, later Boeing the 717, adding Boeing 737-700s in a later order. But the crash, which was laid chiefly to the fault of the now-defunct contractors who loaded the oxygen canisters, forced the FAA to transform its inspection procedures as public suspicion of low-fare carriers grew. ‘They make money by cutting costs on maintenance and inspection,’ was the popular belief, one that the media of the day enforced. The truth was different and certainly is now. One enterprising reporter at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale did some work and found that low-fare carriers “are less prone to mishandle baggage, have slightly better on-time records and have about the same accident rates as major airlines”. As importantly, he notes that “low-cost carriers serving South Florida have a .021 fatal accident rate – a rate that’s lower than but “statistically insignificant” from the .025 rate of the six major carriers”.

However, this truth remains unquestionable over the decade: the FAA inspector workforce was stretched thin 10 years ago. The FAA’s continuing problems with safety inspectors were highlighted as recently as late March when the acting inspector general of the DoT, Todd J. Zinser, told the Senate that the FAA was not hiring enough inspectors to make up for attrition. Zinser also repeated an IG finding from June 2005 that the inspectors “could not effectively use the (inspection) systems to monitor the rapidly occurring changes” in the airline industry. One change for the better: in the wake of the crash, Congress moved to forbid lawyers from soliciting relatives of crash victims in places like hospitals, morgues, and at crash sites themselves. The legislators also ordered the National Transportation Safety Board to set up a process for notifying kin of victims and ordered airlines to have disaster plans in place.

As for the airline itself, AirTran passengers flying the week of the tenth anniversary were mostly too young to have remembered that 1996 day, but a few who has time to talk at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the AirTran’s hub, made it clear that to them, it is just another airline. Considering the media, congressional, and public outrage of 1996, that may not be such a bad thing.

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