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ValuJet grounded // Finding "serious deficiencies,' FAA shuts down the airline

Just weeks after proclaiming ValuJet was safe, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the airline Monday night after finding "serious deficiencies" in the company's operations.

FAA Administrator David Hinson said inspectors had found a litany of safety problems that included "systemwide deficiencies" in maintenance and a lack of oversight for contractors that perform much of ValuJet's maintenance.

"We asked them to cease operations based on the inspections just concluded and they agreed to do so," Hinson said at aWashington news conference.

"We are shut down," ValuJet president Lewis Jordan said in a brief interview with the Times Monday night. "We are shutting down at midnight."

The FAA said ValuJet would remain grounded until the airline takes "appropriate corrective action." The company said it hoped to resume flying in about 30 days.

ValuJet called the shutdown "grossly unfair" because the company had been denied the opportunity to respond to the FAA's concerns. The airline said that the investigations had been prompted by the May 11 crash of Flight 592 but that the company believed the accident would not be linked to ValuJet's maintenance or operations.

"ValuJet has already begun its return-to-service plan," Jordan said, "but at this moment we cannot tell you exactly when we will resume service, or with how many flights."

At Tampa International Airport on Monday night, only a dozen passengers took the last flight while others opted to switch to USAir, which honored ValuJet vouchers.

"I feel a little safer now," said Stan Pardos, 28, who traded his ValuJet reservation to Pittsburgh for one on USAir.

Monday's decision to ground the airline represents another policy flip-flop for the FAA, which had repeatedly defended ValuJet and its safety record, even while inspectors were uncovering serious safety problems.

A series of runway overruns and hard landings by ValuJet planes prompted the FAA to launch a 120-day "special emphasis" inspection of the airline on Feb. 22. Six days later, ValuJet had another runway overrun in Savannah, Ga. FAA inspectors quickly fired off a stern letter to Jordan.

"It appears that ValuJet does not have a structure in place to handle your rapid growth and that you may have an organizational culture in place that is in conflict with operating to the highest possible degree of safety," three FAA inspectors wrote to Jordan Feb. 29.

They also took the extraordinary step of forcing the carrier to get FAA approval before buying planes or adding service to new cities.

That letter, obtained first by the Times in a Freedom of Information Act request, was not publicized. Instead, the FAA was assuring travelers that ValuJet was safe.

On March 2, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen was quoted by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution saying that the FAA had not found anything unusual and "no action has been necessary."

A month later, the government was singing the praises of low-cost carriers like ValuJet.

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena unveiled a study called "The Low Cost Airline Service Revolution" that said one in every seven passengers flew because of low-cost carriers.

"Virtually all passenger growth in this country in the last few years is attributable to these new entrants," he told Aviation Daily. Passengers flying low-fare carriers paid an average of $54 less per flight, saving about $6.3-billion last year, according to the study.

Then came the May 11 crash in the Everglades west of Miami. All 110 people on board were killed.

After touring the crash site the next day, Pena and Robert Francis, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, declared that ValuJet was safe.

"Whenever we have found any issues, ValuJet has been responsive," Pena said.

Francis said: "My daughter has been on ValuJet fairly recently. I would go on ValuJet tomorrow."

But the FAA still beefed up its inspections, conducting the equivalent of four years of normal inspections in just four weeks. In the midst of that period, FAA Associate Administrator Anthony J. Broderick said ValuJet had responded to the FAA's requests.

"We were pursuing aggressive action, and we were seeing correction and change from that," he said in an interview June 6. "Things were moving in the right direction."

But as the results from the 2,000 inspections arrived in the past week, FAA officials changed their minds again. They cited four reasons Monday night:

ValuJet's failure to establish the airworthiness of some of its aircraft.

Systemwide deficiencies in maintenance.

Multiple shortcomings in the quality assurance of its contractors.

A lack of engineering capability in maintenance, which would impede ValuJet's ability to assign and direct repairs.

Asked about the flip-flop Monday night, Hinson said, "At the time that the airline was deemed to be safe, that decision was based on the evidence that existed at that time. Subsequent to the accident, we have turned up a number of issues which caused us to take this action."

Michael Boyd, an airline analyst with Aviation Systems Research in Golden, Colo., said the FAA had waited too long to act.

"The FAA knew about this back in February," Boyd said. "They did nothing about it because our secretary of transportation was putting out a study that said airlines like ValuJet were a boon to the consumer. The FAA knew about these problems and for political reasons they did not want talk about it."

Boyd said the shutdown could be fatal for ValuJet. Besides the difficulty in attracting passengers once it resumes service, the airline is vulnerable to lawsuits from investors who could say they were misled about the company's safety record.

Jordan said that ValuJet will try to accommodate inconvenienced customers "to the highest extent possible" and will provide full refunds for customers with bookings for future flights.

Only a dozen people boarded the last ValuJet flight from Tampa International Airport on Monday night.

The flight to Atlanta left more than an hour late, about 9:40 p.m. Among the passengers was Lori McBride, 35, who was returning to Atlanta after visiting her family in Largo.

"I'm not in a big rush to get back, but I want to get back," she said. "As long as I can get home by Friday, I'm alright."

After the last passenger had boarded the plane, ValuJet employees started packing up, saying they were unsure what would come next.

Said Marla Cioni, a gate agent: "ValuJet won't let us down."

_ Times staff writer Charles Hoskinson and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

The problems

Mechanics were seen pounding an engine with a hammer and chisel instead of using a special tool; the engine had to be shut down during flight.

Numerous reports of planes with leaking fuel and missng rivets, screws and other material.

Mechanic once reported a damaged plane tail skid had been fixed. Passengers were boarding when an FAA inspector saw the work hadn't been done.

Sources: AP, NBC

Changing messages about ValuJet

Feb. 29, 1996

"It appears that ValuJet does not have a structure in place to handle your rapid growth and that you may have an organizational culture that is in conflict with operating to the highest possible degree of safety,"

- FAA letter to ValuJet President Lewis Jordan

May 12, 1996

"Whenever we have found any issues, ValuJet has been responsive, they have been cooperative. . . . And I want to emphasize that I have flown ValuJet, that ValuJet is a safe airline."

- Tranportation Secretary Federico Pena

June 17, 1996

"ValuJet has not demonstrated that it has an effective maintenance control system. Therefore, the airline has agreed to halt voluntarily its operations until such time as it demonstrates appropriate corrective action."

- FAA Administrator David Hinson

Chronology

1993

June

Lewis Jordan, former head of Continental Airlines, founds ValuJet with vice chairman Maurice Gallagher, CEO Robert Priddy and director Tim Flynn.

Oct. 26

The company's flight operations begin with two DC-9-32 aircraft operating eight daily flights between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.

1994

June

ValuJet's initial public offering is at $12.50 a share.

1995

June 8

ValuJet plane 908VJ burns on a runway in Atlanta as it is about to take off. The fire is caused by an uncontained engine failure. One flight attendant is badly burned and minor injuries are reported as the 57 passengers and five crew are evacuated.

1996

January

ValuJet's 41 airplanes serve 26 markets with 268 peak-day flights. ValuJet employees have grown in number from 100 to 3,500.

Feb. 22

The FAA starts a 120-day special emphasis review of ValuJet.

Feb. 28

A ValuJet plane runs off the runway in Savannah, Ga.

Feb. 29

The FAA requires ValuJet to get its approval before buying more planes or beginning service to new cities.

March 19

A ValuJet plane in Tampa has an emergency chute deploy in the cabin, pinning a flight attendant in the galley. The pilot climbs out a cockpit window and enters the plane from the tailcone door to free the attendant.

May 11

ValuJet Flight 592 crashes into the Everglades, killing all 110 on board. The NTSB's investigation shows there may have been an explosion in a forward cargo hold.

May 12

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Chairman David Hinson visit the crash site on orders from President Clinton. At a news conference near the site, Pena says, "I have flown ValuJet, ValuJet is a safe airline, as is our entire aviation system."

May 13

ValuJet Airlines stock drops sharply on the first day of trading since the crash of Flight 592. It fell $4.1875 a share, to $13.6875, on the NASDAQ.

May 15

Pena and Hinson announce more stringent oversight of ValuJet.

May 17

ValuJet says it is slashing its daily flight schedule in half.

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