THE VALUJET CASE

ValuJet's troubles have been splashed across front pages for weeks now, but the government's handling of this affair is far more suspect than ValuJet's maintenance record.

ValuJet had problems. No one denies that. The issue is what the government's response should have been. Based on the facts, the options available to the Federal Aviation Administration, and the consequences of the ValuJet shutdown, grounding the airline - and very possibly killing it - was excessive and unnecessary. ValuJet was shut down because the FAA was under intense political pressure in an election year, and that should trouble travelers almost as much as questionable safety.Consider ValuJet's May 11 accident, which killed 110 people and ultimately forced the government to close the company. Investigators so far have found no evidence that poorly maintained equipment played any role in the crash. Indeed, until May 11, not a single passenger had died on a ValuJet flight.

Certainly, a series of FAA inspections beginning in February had uncovered problems, including questionable oversight of maintenance contractors. But even after the crash, FAA officials said ValuJet was cooperating fully with the probe. The airline had cut its flights in half to guard against further problems while maintenance procedures were tightened. In fact, just before ValuJet was shut down, company President Lewis Jordan was negotiating with regulators to keep some of his 51 planes flying while additional safety measures were taken. That would have been a reasonable compromise, and one the FAA might have accepted in a less charged atmosphere.

Even if new maintenance problems were uncovered after the crash, it's difficult to know how serious they were. FAA Administrator David Hinson says his inspectors conducted the equivalent of four years of safety checks on ValuJet in four weeks. The FAA may have raised the bar on ValuJet so high no airline could have cleared it.

Part of ValuJet's political problem was its relatively small size and its lack of friends in high places. When USAir suffered five fatal crashes in five years, including two in a three-month period in 1994 that killed 169 people, the government did not shut it down. Big airlines have powerful hometown defenders in Congress, chiefly because they are big employers; shutting them down is all but unthinkable. ValuJet was not in that league.

ValuJet, apparently, also faced unusually harsh treatment because it had been such a favorite of the Department of Transportation. A few weeks before the May 11 crash, low-fare airlines had been the subject of a glowing DOT report, and after the crash safety regulators hastily rushed to ValuJet's defense. When maintenance problems later surfaced, DOT officials were under withering pressure to prove their objectivity. Closing ValuJet, rather than working with the airline to fix the problems, was a suitably dramatic gesture.

Closing ValuJet will have real consequences. More passengers fly when fares are low, and you could argue that ValuJet's bargain prices have actually saved lives by luring travelers from more dangerous highways.

Travelers also will be poorer because of the ValuJet close-down. Big airlines like Delta and USAir often matched ValuJet fares; once ValuJet left the market, fares shot up dramatically, although some increases later were rescinded. But even where prices were unchanged, in many cases new restrictions were added.

Since it opened in 1993, ValuJet had been growing quickly, and even its supporters admit management controls and FAA scrutiny did not always keep pace. But if ValuJet was committed to fixing those problems - and it was - and if the FAA was committed to closer oversight - and it was - then inflicting the harshest possible punishment should not have been necessary.

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