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ValuJet struggles to balance safety, bottom-line

VALUJET September 29, 1996
Web posted at: 9:20 p.m. EDT

From CNN Correspondent John Zarrella

MIAMI (CNN) -- Attorneys for the union representing ValuJet flight attendants have gone to court in an effort to keep the discount airline out of the skies.

"The airline wasn't safe in May and we don't believe it is safe today unless the two top officers of the company are removed," said Association of Flight Attendants General Counsel David Borer.

ValuJet officials said the company is altogether different since the May 11 crash in the Florida Everglades.

borer

The Federal Aviation Administration has assigned seven inspectors to oversee the airline's nine-plane startup. There were only three inspectors when ValuJet was at full strength.

The reemerging ValuJet has cut the number of outside companies that will be doing heavy and general maintenance on its airplanes.

This is supposed to mean a smoother, safer running airline. But how long will it last?

williams

"How does ValuJet maintain low fares and safety at the same time?" asked Michael Goldfarb, former FAA chief of staff. "Keeping costs down is a priority for them."

Critics of the FAA and Department of Transportation say the flying public can't necessarily count on the agencies to police the carriers.

"A lot of faith is placed upon the airline itself. The FAA has never and will never have enough resources to completely monitor the airlines," says Wayne Williams, airline safety expert.

Although they deemed the airline safe, neither the FAA nor the Department of Transportation would comment to CNN about ValuJet. Three months ago after insisting lessons had been learned from the crash experience, the FAA adopted new requirements for airlines using contracted-out maintenance.

In the case of ValuJet, critics say, the past can't be ignored. They complained about ValuJet's number of unscheduled landings during the first four and a half months of 1996.

"There is no way that the top officers of a corporation that has amassed the record that ValuJet amassed can be found to be competent or to have the requisite compliance disposition," said Robert Clayman, AFA attorney.

DOT officials have said ValuJet officers met the fitness tests.

Experts express little concern about ValuJet's flights tomorrow, which Goldfarb described as "probably the safest flights in America" due to the high level of recent scrutiny.

The key question is: Will ValuJet remain a safe airline in the long term?

"If a lot of the same people are there and have the same attitudes and habits it may regress. Once this intense FAA scrutiny passes it may go back to its old habits," said Williams.

Airline safety experts say this much is certain: The FAA's intense scrutiny of ValuJet won't last forever.

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