Discount Carriers Get Closer Federal Scrutiny

How safe are those discount airlines?

That's the question the government and airline industry are trying to answer in the wake of the ValuJet Airlines crash in the Florida Everglades.

The question of airline safety comes up whenever lives are lost. But the queries are becoming more pointed with the emergence of rapidly growing airlines - some of which fly older planes to hold down costs.

The crash is leading some airline experts to wonder if there are limits on how many planes can safely operate over America. Is the industry running up against a "safety wall" because of the sheer number of planes crisscrossing the sky? Or, as the industry maintains, is air travel about the safest form of transportation?

The questions come at a time when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) itself is under scrutiny. As recently as last month, Sen. Bill Cohen (R) of Maine called on the agency to review its inspection program and make needed improvements.

While the nation debates the issue of safety in the skies, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is concentrating on ValuJet. In February, after a series of minor problems at the Atlanta-based carrier, the DOT began to scrutinize it's safety and maintenance procedures more closely.

Now, Secretary of Transportation Federico Pea says the government is intensifying that effort. FAA inspectors will be going over maintenance facilities in four states. Government observers will sit in ValueJet cockpits over the next 30 days to review training procedures.

In Florida, meanwhile, Navy divers are working to locate the flight recorder, the remains of 109 people, and the wreckage of the ValuJet DC-9 that crashed about 15 miles northwest of Miami. The task is complicated by murky water, muck, alligators, and deadly snakes - conditions that make this the "most difficult scene" ever encountered for the recovery of an aircraft, as one federal safety official puts it.

FAA officials maintain it is safe to fly the discounters. In fact, in an interview earlier in the year, Bill White, who overseas flight standards for the FAA, said the agency is tougher on start-ups, such as ValuJet. "They get a closer watch than a carrier that's been out there for a while would have gotten," he said. "When an inspector sees a new one [airline] coming into an airport more than likely they are going to make a check of that aircraft."

The FAA checks are also stiffer because most of the start-ups are flying older jets. These require additional maintenance and more frequent inspections. "It becomes an economic thing for the carrier: At some point in time, is it costing more for the maintenance and inspections or do we need new aircraft?" asks White.

As the planes age, the FAA adds checks. As a result of the crash of an Aloha Airlines jet in 1988, there is a separate aging aircraft program. "It requires the replacement of parts rather than inspection and repair," he says. If the plane is flying over salt water, such as out of Miami, there is an additional corrosion program requiring the replacement of parts.

Airline experts say the age of a plane is not as important as the type of service it has been performing. If the plane has been making short hauls, taking off and landing frequently, it will suffer from more fatigue.

"Fatigue results in cracks which degrades the structural integrity of an airplane," says Scott Monroe, an engineering professor at the College of Aeronautics at LaGuardia Airport in New York. He adds that if an airline follows the schedules devised by the manufacturers and the FAA, they shouldn't have problems.

Richard Shevell, a professor emeritus of aeronautics at Stanford University, agrees. He says there is no problem flying older planes - if they are maintained properly.

The accident rate for DC-9s are better than the industry average, according to the Boeing Company. Mr. Shevel, who helped design the original DC-9, says the planes were designed to last 15 to 20 years. But, with proper care, they can last up to 30.

Schedules devised by companies and the FAA are designed to replace parts, or sometimes entire sections of aircraft, since most parts are designed to last for 60,000 hours. Domenic Maglieri, who works for a consulting company, estimates most planes are used about 3,000 hours a year, or 20 years worth. "Whether it's new or old, when they're maintained in accordance with the FAA, I'd get on them if the ticket price is right," he says.

In the case of ValuJet, the ticket price has been right for many. The airline fills a relatively high percentage of its seats. The company also keeps tight control over costs. It bought its planes from Delta Airlines for $1.5 to 2 million per plane.

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