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VALUJET MAKES SAFETY A PRIORITY

ValuJet has appointed a "safety czar" and is reducing its daily flights by half so it can stay on schedule while performing maintenance checks and dealing with increased federal scrutiny following last weekend's crash.

"Anything less than a perfect safety record is unacceptable," ValuJet President Lewis Jordan said Friday as the discount carrier tried to appease frustrated customers with meal vouchers and free trips on a third day of running behind schedule and having to cancel flights at the last minute.The company said it would keep all 51 planes in service and continue to fly to all 31 cities in its system. ValuJet said it didn't know when it would return to full service.

The Atlanta-based discount airline said its flights will be reduced from 320 at most to about 160 each day. Although the Federal Aviation Administration began daily inspections of all ValuJet planes Wednesday, the company said the flight reductions were voluntary and part of its own maintenance review.

The airline also announced that it had named retired Air Force Gen. James B. Davis, who now works for a Washington consulting firm, the Spectrum Group, as its new safety czar.

Davis is assembling senior experts in maintenance, training and other fields to review the airline, ValuJet said.

Also Friday, the FAA revealed that last February two sets of government investigators independently recommended re-eval-u-ations of safety on ValuJet and that it was even suggested the airline be recertified.

ValuJet was placed under special FAA scrutiny Feb. 16 following a series of incidents in late 1995 and early this year. The investigation intensified after a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in Florida last Saturday, killing 110 people.

At the crash site in Florida's Everglades, recovery workers were still looking Friday for the plane's fuselage and other parts, which are buried in muck.

At a news conference Friday evening, Jordan said the company's growth since its inception three years ago "as a discount carrier has been unprecedented."

"Perhaps we grew too fast," Jordan said, but he refused to speculate on whether the growth would be curbed, saying only, "We agree that we must rethink everything that we do."

FAA Associate Administrator Anthony J. Broderick reiterated that the airline is still considered safe to fly, meeting the FAA's standards.

More than 2,000 hours of work investigating the airline since February have resulted in some recommendations, but the agency has found "no substantial systemic safety violations," he said.

Broderick said the special evaluation of the airline launched Feb. 16 came after the FAA's Atlanta field office became concerned about the increasing number of problems being experienced by ValuJet. These included two cases of planes sliding off runways in bad weather, an engine fire and some less serious incidents.

Two days before the Atlanta office acted, regulators in Washington had concluded the airline needed a safety checkup, possibly even a complete recertification.

Recertification means FAA investigators would go over all aspects of the airline's operations to make sure it meets regulations. Airlines continue to operate while this is done, and Broderick said the investigation under way is "for all practical purposes" a recertification.

Meanwhile, ValuJet spokesman Gregg Kenyon said the airline would refund tickets on canceled flights or place customers on USAir if there is room.

Cancellations and delays at the Atlanta-based discount carrier began to pile up Wednesday, when the FAA began morning inspections of every ValuJet plane.

The company did not say how many flights were canceled Friday. But 12 percent of its 241 scheduled flights were canceled Thursday, and 9 percent of 280 flights were canceled Wednesday, said spokesman Kenyon.

On Friday monitors at the airport showed at least 18 flights in and out of its Atlanta hub had been scrapped.

"This is the trip from hell," said Kathleen Govoni of Boston, whose flight from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport to Tampa was canceled Friday.

Govoni was given an $8 lunch voucher at the ticket counter to pass her 41/2-hour wait until the next scheduled ValuJet flight. She said her flight was listed as on-time until an hour before its scheduled departure at 2 p.m.

"I'm disappointed, frustrated and a little angry," said Veniza Barber, a passenger at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. "I think that it's good the FAA is inspecting the planes, but I think they're being a little bit harsh on ValuJet."