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|Commenced operations||October 26, 1993|
|Ceased operations||November 17, 1997 (AirTran Airways)|
|Headquarters||Clayton County, Georgia, U.S.|
ValuJet Airlines was an American low-cost carrier, headquartered in unincorporated Clayton County, Georgia, that operated regularly scheduled domestic and international flights in the Eastern United States and Canada during the 1990s. The company was founded in 1992 and was known for its sometimes dangerous cost-cutting measures. All of the airline's planes were purchased used from other airlines, very little training was provided to workers, and contractors were used for maintenance and other services. The company quickly developed a reputation for its lax safety. In 1995, the military refused ValuJet's bid to fly military personnel over safety worries, and officials at the FAA wanted the airline to be grounded.
The May 1996 crash of Flight 592, caused by illegally stored hazardous materials on board, spelled doom for the airline. ValuJet was grounded the next month and not allowed to fly again until September, with a greatly reduced fleet. The airline's major customers never returned and the company suffered major losses. In 1997, the company merged with the much smaller regional airline AirWays Corp., holding company for AirTran Airways. Although ValuJet was the nominal survivor, the merged airline operated as AirTran until it was purchased by Southwest Airlines in 2011. AirTran never acknowledged its past involvement with ValuJet and kept the airline's memorabilia locked in a warehouse in Atlanta.
ValuJet was founded in 1992 and began operations on October 26, 1993. It originally offered service from Atlanta to Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa with a single Douglas DC-9 that previously belonged to Delta Air Lines. The first flight, Flight 901, flew from Atlanta to Tampa. The carrier was headed by a group of industry veterans including co-founder and chairman Robert Priddy, who had started a string of successful airlines including Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA), Air Midwest Airlines, and Florida Gulf Airlines. Board members Maury Gallagher and Tim Flynn, the other co-founders, developed and ran WestAir before selling it to Mesa Airlines; former Continental Airlines and Flying Tigers President Lewis Jordan joined the carrier a short time later as president.
The airline went public in June, 1994 after a year of tremendous growth with the addition of 15 aircraft since the first flight in 1993. It became the fastest airline to make a profit in the history of American aviation, earning US$21 million in 1994 alone. In October 1995, ValuJet placed an order with McDonnell Douglas for 50 MD-95 jets (now known as the Boeing 717) with an option for 50 more. To keep costs low, the airline bought many used aircraft from around the world. At the time ValuJet's fleet was among the oldest in the United States, averaging 26 years. In 1995, the airline sued Delta Air Lines and TWA over landing slots.
Like most low-cost airlines, ValuJet did not own any hangars or spare parts inventories. However, the measures it took to hold down fares were very aggressive even by low-cost standards. It required pilots to pay for their own training and only paid them after completed flights. It also gave flight attendants only bare-bones training. It also outsourced many functions other airlines handle themselves. For instance, it subcontracted maintenance to several companies, and these companies in turn subcontracted the work to other companies. Whenever delays were caused by mechanics, ValuJet cut the pay of the mechanics working on that plane.
In August 1995, the Department of Defense (DoD) rejected ValuJet's bid to fly military personnel. In a scathing report, the DoD cited serious deficiencies in ValuJet's quality assurance procedures.
The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Atlanta field office sent a memo on February 14, 1996, to Washington, D.C., stating that "consideration should be given to an immediate FAR 121 re-certification of this airline" - in other words, the FAA wanted ValuJet grounded. ValuJet airplanes made 15 emergency landings in 1994, 57 in 1995, and 57 from January through May 1996. In February the FAA ordered ValuJet to seek approval before adding any new aircraft or cities to their network, something the industry had not seen since deregulation in 1979. This attempt at removing ValuJet's certification was "lost in the maze at FAA" according to NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. By this time, ValuJet's accident rate was not only one of the highest in the low-fare sector, but was more than 14 times that of the legacy airlines.
Fallout from the crash of Flight 592
On May 11, 1996, ValuJet suffered its highest-profile incident when Flight 592, a DC-9 flying from Miami to Atlanta, crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 persons on board. The crash was caused by an onboard fire triggered by full chemical oxygen generators that were illegally stowed in the cargo hold without their safety caps, by maintenance subcontractor SabreTech. The resulting investigation revealed numerous systemic flaws, and ultimately faulted ValuJet for not supervising SabreTech.
After the crash, many of ValuJet's other cost-cutting practices came under scrutiny. One of its planes flew 140 times despite a leaky hydraulic system, and another flew 31 times with malfunctioning weather radar. Another plane was allowed to fly despite engine rust that went unnoticed during its refit; it caught fire a few months later and was completely destroyed. At the time of the crash, the FAA was in the final stages of a three-month review of ValuJet's operations. The Transportation Department originally wanted to give ValuJet a clean bill of health. However, due to strong objections from the department's Inspector General, Mary Schiavo, the FAA grounded ValuJet on June 11, 1996.
On September 26, 1996, ValuJet resumed flying with 15 jets, down from 52 before the crash, after complying with all DOT and FAA requirements. On November 4, 1996, ValuJet announced that Joseph Corr, former CEO of Continental Airlines, would become CEO and President at a time when the airline was in serious trouble. However, its highest-paying customers never returned, and it had lost $55 million since the crash of Flight 592.
After the large amount of negative publicity surrounding the Flight 592 incident, ValuJet suffered serious financial problems. On July 11, 1997, ValuJet announced that it would merge with the much smaller Airways Corporation, parent of AirTran Airways. The merged company retained the AirTran name, although ValuJet was the senior partner and nominal survivor of the merger. In November 1997, the company announced it would move its headquarters from Atlanta to Orlando. On November 17, 1997, AirWays Corp. and ValuJet completed the merger, and the tarnished ValuJet name passed into aviation history.
AirTran, prior to its purchase by Southwest, made no notable mention of its past as ValuJet. Instead, AirTran kept a large cache of ValuJet memorabilia, including radio ads, locked in an Atlanta warehouse. AirTran also opted not to make any major announcements on the crash's tenth anniversary out of respect for the victims' families.
ValuJet operated a fleet of 48 aircraft consisting of McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, along with a few McDonnell Douglas MD-80s. The aircraft were fitted with orange seats. Most of the aircraft were more than 15 years old, many obtained from other carriers. ValuJet had on average one of the oldest fleets in America averaging 27 years. All the planes were painted white with blue and yellow trim, with the smiling "critter" painted on both sides of the plane on the front. ValuJet's FAA call sign was "critter" due to the airline's smiling airplane logo.
At the time of its demise the fleet consisted of:
- 2 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31
- 42 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32
- 4 McDonnell Douglas MD-82
- 50 McDonnell Douglas MD-95
ValuJet's main hub was in Atlanta, and their focus cities were Orlando, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and Washington Dulles. Before the crash of Flight 592, ValuJet operated to 22 cities in the U.S. and one in Canada. Most people chose ValuJet for their low fares, such as $39 from Atlanta to Jacksonville.
Accidents and incidents
On June 8, 1995, a DC-9-32, ValuJet Flight 597 suffered an aborted takeoff from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport after a catastrophic engine failure which was caused when the engine became rusted, ValuJet was aware of it but did not budget to fix it. Shrapnel from the right engine penetrated the fuselage and the right engine main fuel line, and a cabin fire erupted. The airplane was stopped on the runway, and captain Greg Straessle ordered evacuation of the airplane. The plane was on a scheduled flight to Miami International Airport.
The subsequent fire destroyed the aircraft. Among the five crew members, one flight attendant received serious puncture wounds from shrapnel and thermal injuries, and another flight attendant received minor injuries. Of the 57 passengers on board, five suffered minor injuries.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the engine failure was caused by a detectable crack in a compressor disk, on which a maintenance contractor had failed to perform a proper inspection and had kept poor records. The incident resulted in the NTSB issuing an advisory recommending improvements to maintenance rules throughout the industry.
ValuJet Flight 592, another DC-9-32, crashed in the Florida Everglades on Saturday, May 11, 1996 due to a fire caused by the activation of chemical oxygen generators that were illegally shipped in the cargo hold. Oxygen makes other things ignite at a lower temperature, and burn hotter and faster. The fire damaged the airplane's electrical system and eventually overcame the crew, resulting in the deaths of all 110 people on board. The airplane was on its way from Miami to Atlanta.
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In 1992, the predecessor airline, ValuJet Airlines was founded by airline industry veterans...
- "Civil Action No. 1-96-CV-1355-JTC." Stanford University Law School. Retrieved on May 19, 2009. "Defendant ValuJet maintains its principal executive offices in this District at 1800 Phoenix Boulevard, Atlanta, Georgia and many of the acts and transactions giving rise to the violations of law complained of herein, including the preparation and dissemination to the investing public of false and misleading information, occurred in this District."
- "ValuJet Airlines routemap." Departedflights.com. Retrieved on July 4, 2009.
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