While many Americans may not remember it, this month marks the 20th anniversary of a devastating commercial jet crash. On May 11, 1996, an airline called ValuJet took off from Miami International Airport on a flight bound for Atlanta. Less than 20 minutes into the flight, the DC-9 burst violently into flames and crashed in the Florida Everglades.
All 110 people aboard were killed, and recovery of the aircraft and the bodies took weeks. The crash became the first in the U.S. to result in criminal prosecution related to a plane accident.
If you don't know the name ValuJet, that's because it's no longer around. At the time of the crash, the start-up had only been around for about three years. But in that short time, it had a number of lesser accidents and safety problems that almost took it out of service. A year after the crash, the company merged with another airline.
So what caused the crash? While ValuJet did not have an impeccable safety record, the crash was primarily the fault of one of ValuJet's maintenance contractors, a company called SabreTech. The contractor had removed 144 oxygen-generating canisters from two other ValuJet planes. SabreTech then packaged the canisters and delivered them to the company, where they were placed in the cargo hold of the plane.
These oxygen canisters are volatile, and can generate heat of up to 500 degrees when triggered. SabreTech had failed to properly prepare and package the canisters. The biggest issue was that the canisters should have been equipped with special yellow caps to prevent discharge. The FAA required these caps, and SabreTech signed off on work orders despite not actually putting the caps on.
If cost was a factor in the decision to forego the caps, then the company killed 110 people in order to save less than $10 on equipment.
SabreTech failed to properly handle and secure the dangerous cargo. ValuJet failed to properly supervise and inspect the work of SabreTech. The FAA failed to properly regulate ValuJet and other ambitious start-up aviation companies. The National Transportation Safety Board assigned blame to all three entities after the crash.
Hindsight is 20-20, and not all serious accidents can be predicted and prevented. But this was not one of those accidents. It was entirely preventable, and involved serious failures on the part of two companies and the FAA.
If there is any silver lining to the tragedy, it is that the crash prompted safety reforms and put airlines on notice that they could face criminal charges. But why should those changes come at the cost of 110 lives?