MIAMI — Many improvements in aviation safety have come off the backs of airline accidents, and lessons from the ValuJet 592 tragedy are no exception.
On May 11, 1996, Flight 592’s McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 crashed into the Everglades a mere eleven minutes after takeoff from Miami, killing all 110 people on board. On takeoff, improperly packaged and labeled oxygen generators in the cargo compartment caught fire, which quickly spread throughout the plane.
The NTSB stated as the Probable Causes: the failure to properly package and identify unexpended chemical oxygen generators; the failure of ValuJet to properly oversee its contract maintenance program; and the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require smoke detection and fire suppression systems in class D cargo compartments.
Valujet 592 ATC Recording
An Airline’s Reputation
While the bulk of the blame went to contract maintenance company SabreTech, the tragedy left ValuJet’s public reputation in tatters. Even before 592, however, ValuJet had already earned a poor reputation. In its quest to capture the low cost market and maximize profits, the company paid its pilots, crew and other employees rock bottom wages.
Planes and equipment were purchased second-hand, and much of the maintenance was farmed out to third-party vendors, including SabreTech. What’s more, ValuJet had been under scrutiny by the FAA, having had no less than 114 emergency landings in 17 months, and an accident rate 14 times higher than those of the mainline airlines.
After the accident, with its name in tatters, the only way ValuJet could save itself was by acquiring—and taking the name of—AirTran. Today, ValuJet/AirTran’s survival is considered a great example of a turnaround in the volatile airline business, with AirTran ultimately being merged and absorbed into Southwest Airlines (WN).
Insights from the Accident
While the findings of ValuJet 592 have not led to any fundamental industry game changers, insights have led to equipping more cockpits with, and increasing pilot training on, rapid donning 02 masks and smoke goggles; increased oversight in maintenance command and control; and expediting regulations requiring cargo fire warning and suppression systems.
Another legacy of the tragedy was the public’s increased suspicion of low-cost carriers. But, is that suspicion founded? Could any of the newer low-cost startups be the new ValuJet? While Frontier Airlines (F9) and Spirit Airlines (NK), for example, enjoyed relatively good reputations with relatively new equipment, Allegiant Airlines (G4) seemed a while back to be intent on culling a similar ValuJet-style bad rap.
This is not without merit: older equipment, lower employee wages, and morale seem to be its business model. In fact, it so happens that Allegiant CEO Maurice J. Gallagher, Jr. was also the founder and CEO of ValuJet as well. With its stratospheric operating margins, G4 management may be putting profit ahead of nearly everything else. But, does the company’s frugal formula equate to “unsafe”?
Well, the proof lies in the maintenance pudding. In this regard, G4 appeared to fare no better. A report by the Aviation Mechanics’ Coalition claimed at the time that the airline had a “high rate of returns and diversions due to avoidable mechanical issues.” In all, 38 incidents between January and March of 2015—including one that led to our labeling Allegiant one of our 2015 “Turkeys of the Year.”
In that incident, G4 fired a captain for diverting and evacuating a plane after smoke in the cabin. If we’ve learned anything from ValuJet 592 and other similar tragedies, it’s that it is deadly to gamble with such a situation. Moreover, second-guessing and firing a captain for a decision that erred on the side of safety set a very dangerous precedent; the next captain facing a similar decision may hesitate—thus unnecessarily risking the lives of passengers and crew.
(Note: The captain later filed a lawsuit against G4 for “Wrongful and Tortious Termination of Employment.” We believed then he had a strong case, and wished him the best of luck.)
In recent decades, technological advancements have vastly improved airline safety. This high-tech/complex system world, however, comes with its own double-edged sword—that of potential for failure. With the increase of complexity in any system comes the increased potential for mechanical failure and, on an aircraft that often has over a million parts, that potential for failure is inherently increased with the age of equipment.
In an Op Ed for The Atlantic entitled, “The Lessons of ValuJet 592,” pilot William Langewiesche writes, “Risk is a part (of airline travel)…. The people involved do not consciously trade safety for money or convenience, but they inevitably make a lot of bad little choices. But then, one day, a few of the bad little choices come together, and circumstances take an airplane down.”
In a New York Times article, Marilyn Kubkeck, mother of ValuJet 592 Captain Candalyn Kubkeck, seemed to agree with Langewiesche’s view. “With the Valujet crash, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and there were so many broken rules it was unbelievable.”
“Who, then,” Langewiesche asks, “is really to blame?”
In the case of ValuJet, blame came in the form of prosecution, the first-ever of its kind, of several SabreTech employees. Two were ultimately acquitted and before trial a third, Mauro Valenzuela, fled the country to his native Chile, where he remains a fugitive. If caught, Valenzuela could be charged with illegal transportation of hazardous materials, making false statements, and conspiracy, among others, not to mention charges relating to fleeing the country.
So, we ask again: in today’s complex world, are low cost carriers “safe enough?”
Today, your odds of being killed on an airline flight is 1 in 29.4 million. Airline travel, even on what is considered the shoddiest of airlines, is far and away the safest form of travel.
But risk has always been in the eye of the beholder. The bottom line is, it’s up to every individual to determine what level of risk they are willing to endure. In terms of air travel, the perception of that risk is often grossly misplaced. For example, during the carpool to the airport, a family may discuss how much risk they are about to embark upon in the air—remaining oblivious to the fact that their drive is magnitudes riskier than the flight itself.
What, then, of the legacy of ValuJet 592?
Because of the exaggerated perception of risks in low-cost air travel 25 years ago, people might have opted to instead drive, and more lives would most likely be lost in cars on the ground than planes in the air.
Featured image: ValuJet