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Public Trust in Airlines Still Flying High

Despite ValuJet crash and FAA shortcomings, passengers are taking to the skies this year in record numbers

Despite all the negative publicity about airline safety since the ValuJet crash, people are flying more frequently now than ever.

Most experts agree that no airline accident has received as much media attention as ValuJet's - partly due to public scrutiny of the government's handling of the event.

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Travelers have switched airlines and perhaps paused before buying tickets. But overall consumer confidence appears not to have been shaken, and planes are seating record numbers of passengers.

Take Ken Beller. The manager of an Oregon semiconductor firm, luggage in tow, was waiting at Boston's Logan Airport Monday night for a flight home to Portland. "There's more of a risk of being hurt on the freeway than in the air," he says, reciting the mantra of the airline industry every bit as well as the industry itself. "I still think there's a fair amount of integrity among airlines. I trust them."

Load capacities - the number of seats filled on each flight - are expected to reach record levels this summer. Already, that proved to be the case for June, says Kevin Murphy, an airline analyst with the Morgan Stanley Group in New York. People flocking to the summer Olympics in Atlanta are one reason, and the current airfare wars no doubt will entice more people to fly.

"Traffic was up more than 7 percent in both May and June," says Samuel Buttrick, airline analyst at PaineWebber in New York. "Commercial air travel is still the safest thing going."

At Logan Airport, many of the travelers interviewed looked with greater apprehension at the Federal Aviation Administration's performance than at the airlines. After the ValuJet crash May 11, Transportation Secretary Federico Pea immediately flew to the Florida Everglades site, where he and FAA Administrator David Hinson announced that ValuJet and low-fare airlines in general were safe to fly.

Within days, however, reports surfaced that the FAA had been carefully monitoring ValuJet and had recommended that the airline be recertified as safe to fly. Mr. Hinson pushed up a previously scheduled, more intense review of ValuJet that led to the FAA's unprecedented grounding of the airline on June 17.

The FAA flap did not escape the attention of travelers who were at Boston's airport Monday night, including a priest who says he flies a couple of times a month. "The credibility of the FAA has suffered," he says, while waiting to board an international flight. "Especially in this country, you expect to be protected. You figure that [the FAA] would do a credible job of protecting our travelers."

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THE Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee holds a hearing today on the Department of Transportation's handling of ValuJet. Mr. Pea and Hinson will testify, as will former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo. Ms. Schiavo wrote in a magazine article a day after the accident that she would not fly ValuJet and criticized the FAA for its oversight of the no-frills startup.

"The ... committee, and more important the American people, need to hear from Secretary Pea on the safety procedures at the FAA," says committee chairman Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota. "He's been absent from much of the debate on FAA safety recently, and the senators on this committee feel he is obligated to share his insights publicly."

Airline analysts say some passengers have veered away from travel on smaller planes. Instead, they are opting for major airlines, even if that means paying more.

Rebecca Cole, a travel agent with Fugazy Travel in Boston, says customers didn't cancel any flights after the ValuJet crash. But they did ask more questions, such as what size plane they would be on, and whether the plane was a turboprop or jet. Ms. Cole says that, after a crash, passengers tend to avoid that airline for a short while, but they tend to return. She says USAir experienced many cancellations after one of its 737s crashed in Pittsburgh in 1994.

That accident received much media attention. But even that crash - the fourth in a string of accidents involving 737s - did not get the attention ValuJet is receiving.

"This is probably the most brutal we've seen in terms of coverage," says Jon Ash, managing director of Global Aviation Association, an airline consulting firm in Washington. "This got unbelievable publicity. It took on a life of its own."

The passenger trend of choosing major airlines over bargain-basement carriers is on a downswing, though. "There was a flight to the traditional major airlines," Mr. Buttrick says. "But that process is nearly finished. It happens every time there is an airline accident."

At least some passengers at Logan are back to choosing low-fare carriers. Marty McIsaac of Quincy, Mass., chose to fly Spirit Airlines to Detroit because the ticket was only $59. "Flying Spirit is kind of an experiment for me. It's a money issue, strictly. I don't want to pay a couple of hundred dollars more when I can pay this. But I have given it a second thought now."

*Seth Jones contributed to this report.

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