Valujet 592 Flight crashed on May 11, 1996, taking the lives of 110 passengers and crew on board. The crash was prompted by a fire in the cargo container, which happened because of violations of storage and packaging rules by the subcontractor performing the packaging. Valujet’s cost-cutting policies in combination with aggressive growth could have contributed to the tragedy.
The analysis of how much Valujet has grown prior to the catastrophe could have additional implications for the company and the recommendations provided in the report. The company began operations in late 1993 and became profitable in 1994, which is amazing even for a low-cost airline. The company’s fleet expanded significantly as well – they purchased 15 jets in 1994 and 50 more in 1995. This allowed the company to open more routes and facilitate more operations, bringing in additional profit. However, rapid growth has the potential to affect safety in a negative way. The first and most obvious threat to safety comes from the company’s inexperience with managing large fleets.
Their existing capacities are greatly expanded without the personnel to help manage flights, safety operations, and logistics. When faced with a lack of dedicated personnel, Valujet was forced to rely on subcontractors to perform maintenance, loading, and unloading of cargo, and other operations. The level of control that the company could express over these subcontractors is naturally lower when compared to their own dedicated departments. Without such supervision, there is a chance for the subcontractors to ignore or downplay certain regulations, under the pressure to make schedules meet.
Another issue associated with Valujet’s fast growth is the age of the fleet. Since new jets are expensive, require ordering in advance, and take significant time to make, thus not a viable option for quick expansion. Valujet purchased used aircraft from other companies for cheap, with the average age of their fleet between 20-26 years. These planes are more high-risk compared to newer models due to scheduled maintenance checks, and mental fatigue, and are almost at the end of their intended use limit. As an investigator, I believe that the aggressive expansion is worth exploring as a factor that may make Valujet’s flights less safe and force a limit of some kind on the company’s aggressive strategy. The incident that occurred with Valujet 592 flight is indirectly related to the concept, as the cargo that caught aflame contained illegal hazardous materials placed there by SaberTech – the cargo contractor hired by Valujet due to an absence of their own personnel and equipment.
If I were pressured by the highest office to not explore growth any further, I would have refused to drop this part of the investigation. Based on my analysis, it is clear to me that without recommendations to cease their aggressive expansion, they would continue to do so, rename the airline to avoid bad publicity, and continue as always.
It would also be clear to me that said the highest office is, perhaps, cooperating with the company to move away from something that might hinder their strategy and towards treating the symptoms, such as improving safety and control over their subcontractors (which is something they have to do anyway), and not address the core issues, one of which is the company resources being stretched too thin. Still, I would give the higher-ups the benefit of the doubt and explain my reasons to continue the investigation in this direction, strongly urging them to reconsider, and citing my reasons for doing so.