ValuJet Takes Off Again After 15-Week Grounding
ATLANTA (AP) _ After a deadly crash and a 15-week grounding by the government, ValuJet Airlines returned to the sky today.
Cleared by federal regulators last week to resume limited operations, ValuJet’s first flight since June 17 took off for Washington, D.C., from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport at 12:57 p.m., about 30 minutes behind schedule. It landed in Washington at 2:20 p.m.
The airline also scheduled flights today to three Florida cities _ Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.
Flight attendant Linda Bradigan welcomed passengers on board the first flight, declaring ``We are back.″ Her colleague, Mimi Halperin, held up a sign that prompted, ``Applause,″ and the plane erupted in cheers and clapping.
About a third of the 115 passengers were ValuJet employees, including the company president, who brought his family. Another third were reporters and photographers.
Business partners Eugene Lee McCord and David Coffin of Atlanta bought tickets for the first flight to Washington to show their support for ValuJet and to take advantage of special $19 one-way fares being offered through Thursday. They said they had no business in Washington today.
``We happen to feel ValuJet has gotten a raw deal and we believe in the underdog,″ said Coffin. ``The other airlines don’t like the competition and they want ValuJet grounded.″
But Brenda Matarazzo of Riverside County, Calif., said she would not have considered using ValuJet for her trip from Atlanta to Orlando today.
``I wouldn’t take it because I believe in fate,″ she said before boarding a Delta flight. ``Too much has happened. And wasn’t there a lunar eclipse recently?″
Doris Allen of Anderson, S.C., got her picture taken under a ValuJet banner as she waited to board the Washington flight.
``I think at this point ValuJet is probably the safest way to go,″ she said. ``I think they got a bad rap.″
The gates for today’s ValuJet flights were festooned with blue, yellow and white balloons and banners that said, ``Low Air Fares Are Back!″ A four-piece band played ``Happy Days Are Here Again.″
``We’re going to provide the safest airline product that we possibly can,″ said ValuJet president Lewis Jordan. ``Safety is No. 1, and today is the day we start.″
Despite being shut down for the busy summer travel season, the discount airline has sufficient cash reserves to continue offering low fares, analysts say.
But May’s crash in the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people and safety problems subsequently uncovered in a lengthy Federal Aviation Administration review could scare some travelers away.
Airline industry analyst Mike Boyd said fliers aren’t likely to cut ValuJet much slack if new problems arise.
``If they hit so much as a bird, they’re in trouble,″ said Boyd, president of Aviation Systems Research Corp. in Golden, Colo.
The airline also faces a more competitive market. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is launching a low-cost offshoot, aimed at Florida-bound travelers, on Tuesday. Delta and Kiwi Airlines have said they will match ValuJet’s extra low introductory fares this month.
A possible hurdle to ValuJet’s return fell this morning when a court in Washington declined to block today’s flights. The request by the Association of Flight Attendants union was turned down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Jordan has refused to make any financial forecast.
But he said this morning, ``ValuJet has been profitable in every quarter it’s ever operated prior to the accident, and we believe that we will work our way back to profitability again.″