Flying ValuJet, With Feeling

Waiting to board a recent ValuJet flight out of Raleigh, N.C., I was struck by this thought: Just about anybody can fly these days.

Entire families, some with small, crying children. Students with backpacks. Older people on fixed incomes. ValuJet is so cheap, it is becoming the Greyhound bus of air travel for the Eastern corridor.

How can you complain about a round-trip ticket, Washington to Raleigh, for just $131, purchased only a few days in advance? It sure beats paying $660 to go to Charlotte, N.C., on another airline that will remain nameless. And ValuJet doesn't even give you a ticket to keep track of - just a confirmation number. All you do is show up at the ValuJet counter, give them your last name, show them a picture ID, and you're in.

No assigned seats, either. Just laminated cards with boarding numbers on them, distributed at the check-in counter. When your number is called, you hand over your card, get on the plane, and sit wherever you want. No first class. You're all in this together.

Trouble is, the planes are usually so full there's a danger they might not have room. On such a full plane, it's hard to avoid conversing with one's fellow travelers, which may or may not be such a bad thing, depending on your mood and on your ability to size up a potential seat-mate in a split second.

ValuJet is so cheap, I was sure it would be awful. But, truth be told, it really isn't. The old DC-9s ValuJet uses seem to be in fine shape.

One flight I took did leave hopelessly late, with nary a clue that its departure status was anything but ''on time.'' The flight attendants, dressed in chinos and turtlenecks, can look a bit silly - unlike those sleek, aloof ladies who deliver the meals on Air France.

But at least ValuJet attendants bring soft drinks around and a choice of peanuts or pretzels. Once I was even handed a package of each. Who can complain?

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