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SPECIAL REPORT // Incidents prompt ValuJet review

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Saturday's crash of a ValuJet DC-9 outside Miami is the first deadly crash for the airline with the happy-jet logo, but it is just the latest in a series of incidents, major and minor, in the past year.

ValuJet has been under scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration over the rapidly expanding airline's safety record. Saturday's crash, which killed 109 passengers and crew, will certainly intensify it.

The 2{-year-old airline has made its reputation in the industry by cutting costs. But seated at his desk in Atlanta _ a plain brown $100 model purchased from Office Depot _ ValuJet president Lewis Jordan insisted last week that none of the cost-cutting compromised safety.

"The type of desk I have has no relationship to safety," Jordan told the Times Thursday. "We're saving money but it's not affecting safety."

A ValuJet DC-9 that made a hard landing in Nashville, Tenn., has been grounded for five months for major repairs. A collapsed landing gear on another plane put it out of service for several months. In Tampa on March 17, an evacuation slide suddenly inflated inside a ValuJet plane, knocking down a flight attendant and injuring another.

In June 1995, a ValuJet flight attendant was injured when an engine fire spread to the fuselage of a plane on an Atlanta runway.

More than 40 FAA inspectors have spent the past four months scrutinizing the Atlanta-based airline, examining maintenance records, inspecting planes and watching pilots.

"For the most part, we found their airplanes in full compliance," said W. Michael Sacrey, the FAA's manager of flight standards in Atlanta.

But during the review, the FAA found a lack of communication in ValuJet's cockpits. Sacrey said the common denominator in ValuJet's incidents before Saturday was that "something was lacking in discipline. . . . It appeared to us the pilot-in-command was not asserting himself."

The FAA recently recommended ValuJet improve cockpit communication and tighten rules on when first officers are allowed to land the aircraft.

ValuJet agreed and announced a new safety program last month. The company vowed to increase training for pilots in cockpit communication, hold seminars on the role of the captain and restrict when first officers can land the company's jets.

The airline also said it would slow its growth and would buy four fewer planes this year than planned.

"We know there is such a thing as growing pains," Jordan said last week.

From its start, in 1993, ValuJet has been unorthodox. It used DC-9s that had been retired from other airlines and was a truly ticketless operation. Passengers are given a confirmation number instead of a ticket.

The result: Passengers on Saturday's scheduled flight from Miami to Atlanta were able to walk up and purchase a one-way ticket for $111. The walk-up, one-way fare for flights on more established Delta or American Airlines is $359.

To do it so cheaply, ValuJet cuts costs at every turn. Its headquarters, near the Atlanta airport, is cramped and informal. Jordan's office is tiny and has a paper cutout of the company's logo taped on the wall.

ValuJet's fleet of DC-9s has an average age of 26 years. The company also has two MD-80s that are 13 years old on average.

The planes do not have the polish of newer jets. The side panels inside the cabins are often cockeyed and the caulking in the lavatories is sloppy.

"I see a little bit of sloppiness," said Sacrey of the FAA. "But we feel it is cosmetic."

ValuJet flight attendants are famous for wisecracks and jokes, but Sacrey said the joking with passengers does not violate federal rules.

"They do a perfectly acceptable safety briefing and then they follow it up with a joke," Sacrey said.

ValuJet also is unorthodox because a large share of its maintenance is handled by vendors. Sacrey said that is permitted by federal rules, but he emphasized to ValuJet that the company is still ultimately responsible for the maintenance work.

In the interview last week with the Times, Jordan said the company's cost-cutting did not affect safety. He said many other carriers use vendors.

"The difference is not whether you have your own hangar. The difference is what your attitude is about safety," he said.

Jordan also said some FAA officials were uncomfortable with ValuJet's relaxed style.

"There probably are some people in the regulatory agencies that would be more comfortable if we wore a tie to work," he said.

FAA officials had also noted that newer ValuJet pilots did not have as much experience with DC-9s as the first pilots the company hired. Jordan said that was because he started with some of the most experienced DC-9 pilots in the country.

They had lost jobs with Eastern and other carriers and were eager to fly again when ValuJet started.

ValuJet's fleet of DC-9s has an average age of 26 years.

Jordan said last week that he wanted to address the FAA's complaints.

The result of ValuJet's cost-cutting and aggressive promotion has impressed Wall Street. For the first three quarters of the fiscal year, the company posted a $48.6-million net profit on revenues of about $257-million. In its third quarter, revenues were up 171 percent above the previous year.

Part of that money will now be spent on refurbishing the airline's fleet, Jordan said.

"Down the road, we will clean up and improve those things," he said.

He boasted about the quality of ValuJet's maintenance program even though much of the work was done by vendors.

"There's nothing more important at ValuJet than safety," he said Thursday. "We will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure we achieve the highest level of safety."

_ Times researcher Debbie Wolfe contributed to this report.