TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: ValuJet

Photo provided by Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1990s, a new face to low-cost air travel popped up in the Southern United States. Although their history was not long, this one airline changed the public’s view on low-cost air travel and made the government enforce stricter regulations, industry-wide. This airline was ValuJet, who while known for their low fares and their cartoon like logo, quickly grew to become a formidable low-cost carrier. However, mismanagement and maintenance problems lead to their sudden demise in the late 1990s.

Created in 1992 by a group of aviation veterans, Valujet began its career lead by chairman Robert Priddy, who had helped to start regional carriers such as Atlantic Southeast and Air Midwest. The initial executives were well experienced in the airline industry such as former Flying Tigers president Lewis Jordan. ValuJet began official operations on October 26th, 1993 with its first flight being between Atlanta and Tampa using a used DC-9 purchased by fellow Atlanta carrier Delta Air Lines. Initially the airline flew from Atlanta to sunshine destinations Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and found success in these routes.

Within the first 8 months the airline had added 15 aircraft and went public. In addition, the airline became the fastest airline to make a profit in American history, earning $21 million in 1994 alone. In 1995, ValuJet became the launch customer for the MD-95, which later became the Boeing 717, ordering 50 aircraft with an option for 50 more.

However, underneath all the financial success would lie many issues that would plague the airline. In October of 1995, the Department of Defense rejected ValuJet’s bid to transport military personnel, citing numerous maintenance concerns. In the airline’s desire to offer low-fares, the carrier subcontracted maintenance to outside companies, which in turn subcontracted the job to other companies. Training was also outsourced, with pilots forced to pay for their own training and flight attendants given the bare bones training.

In early 1996 the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) field office in Atlanta sent a memo to the head office in Washington D.C. effectively calling for ValuJet to be grounded. This is in part due to the airline having 15 emergency landings in 1994 alone. This rate nearly quadrupled in 1995 to 57, and in just the first 5 months of 1996 the airline experienced the same amount of emergency landings. In February of 1996 the FAA forced ValuJet to gain government approval whenever they wanted to purchase a new aircraft or start service a new city. This hadn’t been seen since government deregulation in 1979.

On May 11th, 1996 the airline had 52 aircraft, mostly the DC-9, and served 22 cities throughout the eastern seaboard. The airlines fleet was one of the oldest in America and nearly all were used aircraft. On this date, the airline suffered tragedy that would change the airline forever. Flight 592 was a scheduled flight from Miami to Atlanta. Shortly after takeoff from Miami a fire engulfed the aircraft, causing the aircraft to lose control and smash into the Everglades west of Miami.

An investigation later revealed that the fire was caused by outsourced maintenance placing oxygen generators in the cargo hold that were not probably capped. A month after the crash, the FAA grounded the airline for safety problems. Some of the problems found with the airlines maintenance included one plane flying 140 times with a leaky hydraulics system.

In September the airline was allowed to resume operations using only 15 aircraft. However, the airline was in dire straits. The public was wary to fly on ValuJet after the negative publicity experienced from the crash of Flight 592. Despite meeting all of the FAA and Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, ValuJet’s highest paying customers never returned.

The airline, in financial and publicity ruin, sought a merger with the much smaller AirTran Airways. The merger, announced in mid-July 1997, would see the AirTran Airways name survive and the airline’s headquarters move from Atlanta to Orlando. This merger effectively ended the use of the tarnished name ValuJet in the American skies.

ValuJet, in its short history, provided low-cost airfare to the traveling public. However, they provided the extreme example of how to not run a low-cost airline. Their cost cutting measures, especially in the maintenance department, lead to crashes and deaths, which would ultimately cause their demise. Their public image, forever tarnished, led them to accomplish one of the few reverse mergers in airline history. AirTran had years of success post-merger until their merger with Southwest Airlines in 2011. While ValuJet may not be remembered by most passengers today, its legacy lives on.

Daniel Morley

Daniel Morley

Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.
Daniel Morley