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Surprised no one's mentioned this yet, but Tracy Morgan is suing Walmart, claiming that its negligence resulted in one of its trucks plowing into Morgan's limo back in June.  For those who don't remember, the driver of the Walmart truck who plowed into Morgan's limo in June hadn't had any sleep in more than 24 hours.  Morgan's lawsuit contends that this was mainly because the driver, Kevin Roper, had to drive almost 11 hours the night before from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia to a Walmart warehouse in Delaware.  By my admittedly unscientific estimate, this means Roper was probably up for 25 hours straight, and possibly as long as 30 hours.  Additionally, the truck's collision-avoidance system failed to slow the truck down when it encountered slow traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Morgan contends that Walmart has a pattern of allowing its drivers to be on the clock for dangerously long periods--meaning that in its quest for low prices, Walmart may be putting both its drivers and the public in danger.

When I read this lawsuit, my thoughts went back to what was revealed about ValuJet's business practices in the aftermath of Flight 592.  An article about air safety that ran in Midwest Today in the fall of 1998--after ValuJet bought AirTran and took on the AirTran name--chronicled the lengths ValuJet went to give customers low fares.

They located routes in the South where wages are cheap and demand is high. They acquired the oldest planes in the modern fleet.

They forced pilots to pay for their own training, gave flight attendants the most cursory instruction, and demanded long hours from personnel - some of whom were kept in check by extended periods of probation, and whose placement occurred through an employment agency owned by the company president Lewis Jordan's ex-wife and daughter. ValuJet grew quickly and kept its fares low by outsourcing the expensive functions that other airlines do themselves.

Perhaps its biggest mistake was that ValuJet subcontracted its maintenance work out to SabreTech (to name one) and SabreTech in turn "farmed out" some of their work. ValuJet operated one plane with a leaky hydraulic system for 140 flights before it was corrected.

If the name SabreTech doesn't ring a bell, that's the company that illegally shipped expired oxygen canisters without their safety caps aboard Flight 592.

If repair work resulted in a delay, ValuJet cut the pay of the mechanics working on that plane.  Additionally, according to an article about the 10th anniversary of the crash, pilots were only paid when they completed their flights.  Small wonder that on several occasions, ValuJet allowed planes to fly that really had no business being in the air.  One plane made 140 flights with a leaky hydraulic system.  Another flew at least 31 times with malfunctioning weather radar.  Still another went up in flames in Turkey due to engine rust that wasn't noticed during an earlier refit.  At least one flight attendant quit rather than fly on several planes she didn't think were safe.

At the time of the crash, ValuJet's accident rate was not only by far the highest of any no-frills airline, but was 14 times higher than the legacy carriers.  The FAA actually wanted ValuJet grounded, but that got lost in the bureaucratic maze prior to Flight 592.

It's hard not to see the similarities between the way ValuJet operated then and the way Walmart operated now.  It's long been common knowledge that Walmart is so fixated on keeping prices low that it's willing to throw the welfare of its employees to the winds to do it--salaries so low and health plans so expensive that the company actually encourages workers to go on public assistance.  Now, if Morgan's suit is any indication, it looks like Walmart is willing to play fast and loose with the safety of both its workers and the general public.  Apparently Walmart didn't learn the hard lesson ValuJet learned--most people aren't willing to compromise safety in the name of saving money.

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