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10 years after tragedy, AirTran flies on

Published May 11, 2006

AirTran Airways won't observe today's anniversary of the tragedy that nearly brought down the airline.

Ten years after the May 11, 1996, crash of a DC-9 flown by predecessor ValuJet, the discount carrier will avoid making major corporate announcements out of respect for victims' families but has no other plans to mark the date, said spokesman Tad Hutcheson.

Since ValuJet bought AirTran and adopted the tiny airline's name a year after the crash in the Everglades that killed 110 passengers and crew members, the new Orlando-based AirTran assiduously has purged ValuJet from its corporate identity.

You still 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 up in an Atlanta warehouse. The items will probably end up in a small museum some day, Hutcheson said.

"It's still part of our history,'' he said. "We just haven't focused on it.''

ValuJet was grounded by the government for three months 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.

AirTran began replacing its aging fleet with new Boeing jets. The airline introduced amenities such as a business class cabin and reserved seats. Industry veteran Joe Leonard took over, brought in new lieutenants and insisted AirTran pick 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. "They literally had to make it into a different airline.''

Today, AirTran ranks as the 10th-largest U.S. airline and among a handful generating consistent, if modest, profits. Revenues 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.

Atlanta-based ValuJet launched in 1993 following the typical game plan for new no-frills airlines.

The airline bought second-hand planes, contracted out all maintenance and didn't own repair hangars or spare parts inventories. Pilots bought their own uniforms, made a base salary of $42,000 and only got paid when they completed their flights.

Bargain-hunters loved the cheap fares. But many travelers figured the new generation of low-fare carriers was keeping ticket prices low by flying old planes and hiring outside companies to maintain them. Only Southwest Airlines, an established discounter that was growing a nationwide flight network with new jets, was immune.

On Mother's Day weekend 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 bound for Atlanta crashed in the Everglades trying to return to Miami International Airport.

Investigators determined that oxygen-generating canisters in the cargo hold started a fire that crippled the DC-9. Employees of a Miami maintenance contractor improperly packed the canisters as cargo.

"It was awful, a cataclysmic event for them and the (low-fare) side of the industry,'' Klaskin said. "The public believed their perception was proven by the accident.''

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded ValuJet the month after the crash. The airline was allowed to slowly resume operations in September but its highest-paying business customers didn't return. Before the crash, an average of 21 passengers on each flight paid the full walk-up fare, said Hutcheson. When ValuJet came back, the number plummeted to three.

Executives studied examples of brands like Tylenol and Midwest Express Airlines that survived tragedies. Both had longer track records and other advantages that ValuJet lacked.

In 1997, ValuJet bought AirTran, one-third its size with just 10 Boeing 737s, and began flying under the new name. The makeover to look more like a traditional airline, however, was much more extreme.

Employees traded in polo shirts for button-downs. Flight attendants were told to end antics like the trivia games on board. Even the sand bags used as ballast in aircraft were repainted with the AirTran name.

Full-page newspaper ads listed 27 ways the new airline was different from the old one. Most important was the promise that new Boeing 717s would replace the DC-9s.

"ValuJet was the first new (low-fare) entrant that said, 'We cannot even think of rebuilding the company on planes bought at someone else's fire sale,' '' said Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline analyst in Port Washington, N.Y.

Founders Robert Priddy and Lewis Jordan left leadership roles, although Jordan remains on AirTran's board of directors.

Joe Leonard, an industry veteran who worked as chief operating officer of defunct Eastern Airlines, took over as AirTran's chief executive in 1999. He sped up deliveries of new jets, and built a new management team. Only one of the 16 executives on AirTran's leadership team ever worked for ValuJet.

Leonard insisted on entering markets where AirTran could stay and fight. Tallahassee is a rare city where the airline retreated after a short stay. But Florida remains AirTran's bedrock market, making up 33 percent of revenues.

The company lost $2.8-million in 2001, the start of a prolonged industry slump. 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.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.


Investigators determined that volatile oxygen canisters, like the one pictured above, led to the crash of ValuJet Flight 592.

* The canisters, about the size of tennis ball cans, create 15 minutes of oxygen when passengers pull masks down from the overhead compartment. The chemical change that makes the oxygen also creates 500-degree heat.

* The canisters came from three used jets that SabreTech was renovating in its Miami hangar on behalf of ValuJet.

* Full canisters were loaded improperly in the plane's cargo hold without safety caps. Jostling of the tanks in the hold caused them to activate, resulting in an oxygenrich fire that brought the jetliner down.

Sources: NTSB; McDonnell Douglas; Times files