ValuJet crash prompted changes

Successor AirTran avoids anniversary

May 12, 2006|By STEVE HUETTEL | STEVE HUETTEL,ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

MIAMI -- AirTran Airways didn't observe yesterday's 10th anniversary of the tragedy that nearly destroyed ValuJet, the airline's predecessor.

The discount carrier avoided making major corporate announcements out of respect for victims' families and had no plans to mark the date, said spokesman Tad Hutcheson.

The actions were in keeping with Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran's moves over the years to purge ValuJet from its corporate identity.

But about 80 relatives and friends of the fallen DC-9's passengers and crew were joined by federal investigators, who talked about changes since ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades, killing 110 passengers and crew members.

Like many family members, Marguerite Dingle of Baltimore said she felt compelled to take part in the anniversary because there were no remains recovered of her sister, Frances Brown.

Clutching a framed photograph of her sister, Dingle said her emotions of a decade ago came back with a rush when she got to the airport to make the trip.

"All of those feelings resurfaced. The phone calls. Telling our mother," she said.

"The hardest thing about bringing closure is that we have no remains. We have to come to Miami to fully pay our respects," Dingle said.

Now, passenger airlines can no longer carry as cargo the oxygen generators blamed for starting the fire that brought down Flight 592. The Federal Aviation Administration also ordered the installation of fire detection and suppression systems in cargo areas.

"It took the loss of 110 lives for that change to occur," said Greg Feith, who was the lead ValuJet investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA's inspector general at the time of the crash, Mary Schiavo, said it also spurred federal laws and airline policies that treat victims' relatives with greater respect and provide them with more information.

"These families sort of stood together and banded together like no other crash before it," Schiavo said. "That was a major, major change in the law."

A year after the crash, ValuJet bought AirTran and adopted the tiny airline's name. The parent company, now called AirTran Holdings Inc., has since risen from ValuJet's ashes.

AirTran has one of the newest fleets of aircraft in the industry. It flies to 50 destinations, and is the No. 2 carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

You won't find the word "ValuJet" on the company Web site. Memorabilia such as signs, an aircraft model and copies of Captain Valu radio ads remain locked in an Atlanta warehouse. The items probably will end up in a small museum some day, Hutcheson said.

"It's still part of our history," the AirTran spokesman said. `'We just haven't focused on it."

ValuJet was grounded by the government for three months after the Everglades crash and struggled for a year to win back jittery customers. Executives concluded the only way to save ValuJet was to rename the airline and rebuild it under a different blueprint for a low-fare carrier.

As AirTran, it began replacing its older fleet with new Boeing jets. It introduced amenities such as a business class cabin and reserved seats. Industry veteran Joe Leonard took over, brought in new lieutenants and insisted on AirTran picking sustainable markets instead of jumping from city to city like a scared start-up.

"He drove an incredible rebranding effort," said aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin of Coral Gables, Fla. `'They literally had to make it into a different airline."

Now AirTran ranks as the 10th-largest U.S. airline and among a handful generating consistent, if modest, profits. Revenue hit $1.4 billion last year, nearly four times ValuJet's total the year before the crash.

The carrier flies the industry's newest all-Boeing fleet, with 111 jets. AirTran's capacity is growing by 24 percent annually, and plans call for adding about 20 new planes a year through 2010.

The company lost $2.8 million in 2001, the start of a prolonged industry slump. But, unlike most competitors, AirTran recovered and rang up small profits every year since. AirTran says it still has the lowest costs, excluding fuel, among major U.S. airlines, although traditional carriers are closing the gap through bankruptcies and restructuring.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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