This article was in the Dallas Morning News Business section today.
AirTran well on its way back
Rebirth seen as unprecedented after deadly ValuJet crash of '96
CDT on Tuesday, August 26, 2003
ORLANDO, Fla. – The crash of a ValuJet DC-9 into the Everglades in May 1996, killing all 110 people aboard, made an industry pariah of the low-fare airline.
A little more than seven years later, the carrier, now known as AirTran Airways Inc., has made a stunning recovery.
This year, AirTran began offering cross-country service, announced a $5 billion aircraft order and reported its fifth consecutive quarterly profit at a time when the major carriers' financial fortunes are sagging.
When it was known as ValuJet, the airline "had old planes, poor service, weak management," said Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Blaylock & Partners in New York. "Everything has completely changed."
The airline – which recently began flying to Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles – will add Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and San Francisco to its schedule before year's end.
AirTran, which now flies to 43 cities, also plans to add service in three to five cities next year and in 2005, said chairman and chief executive Joe Leonard.
"We can put airplanes anywhere," Mr. Leonard said. "We'll keep pushing our web out further and further."
The carrier also is growing at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where it will begin offering service to Orlando, the airline's headquarters city, next month. The carrier currently offers daily flights from D/FW to Atlanta, its largest hub. (Austin is the only other Texas city on AirTran's route map.)
AirTran also is taking advantage of bigger carriers' cutbacks. It's looking, for example, at moving into St. Louis, where Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc. is reducing service.
The growth intrigues some airline industry experts because AirTran goes about it in such a low-key way.
"I haven't been able to figure out in the case of AirTran what their gimmick is," said Alan Bender, a professor of airline economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "I scratch my head at what makes AirTran special."
Yet its turnaround is unprecedented, Mr. Bender said. Other airlines, such as Air Florida, have sunk under the weight of fatal crashes. Air Florida folded a few years after a 1982 crash in Washington, D.C., killed 78 people.
The road to rehabilitation began in 1997 when ValuJet acquired a smaller carrier called AirTran, adopted its name and moved its headquarters to Orlando from Atlanta.
A management shakeup two years later brought a new team of executives headed by Mr. Leonard, a longtime industry executive who served as chief operating officer for now-defunct Eastern Air Lines. Only one member of the company's 14-member leadership team worked for ValuJet at the time of the crash.
But no factor has been more important to its turnaround than retiring the airline's aging DC-9s and bringing in new, roomier Boeing 717s, Mr. Leonard said.
Safe and sound
Industry experts said the new planes have dramatically improved AirTran's safety record.
"Now you look at the airline and it's one of the most modern fleets in the world," said John Wensveen, a professor of airline management at Embry-Riddle.
Seven years after the ValuJet crash, many travelers don't associate AirTran with its predecessor.
Mark Wolsonovich, who regularly flies on AirTran, had no idea that the airline used to be known as ValuJet.
"To me, that's one of those flukes," Mr. Wolsonovich said of the 1996 crash, while waiting for a flight from Orlando to Chicago. "Things like that happen."