Air safety's sharp new spur

The United States system of aviation safety has come under sharp new attack by researchers warning of serious deficiencies in the government's oversight operations. The latest findings come from an independent panel of experts commissioned by the US Department of Transportation to conduct what is termed the most penetrating analysis ever made of the government's system for ensuring the safety of American-built airliners. The report cites, among other things, weaknesses in the Federal Aviation Administration's regulations for certifying the design and maintenance of aircraft and calls its inspectors too lax.

The Transportation Department study faults the FAA's use of so-called "designated" engineers -- those wearing two hats, working both for the aircraft manufacturer and part time for the FAA. Previous studies also cited the potential conflicts of interest in such a situation. But this new report specifically takes to task the FAA's own technical staff, citing shortcomings in their qualifications for overseeing the certification process. The panel calls for upgrading the talent and skills of FAA administrators.

Following on the heels of similar warnings barely over a month ago that stemmed from an 18-month congressional probe of FAA procedures and regulations, this latest report underscores the need for a drastic tightening up of the certification program.

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But the nation's air safety problems go beyond the design and maintenance of the aircraft used by commercial airliners, although many experts consider that a key weakness that has contributed to some of the worst air crashes of recent years. The overall US aviation safety record over the years has been good. But there are increasingly obvious gaps in how the FAA controls air traffic that, for instance, are reflected in the sharp increase in near misses over heavily used airports. The number of them over all airports jumped from 286 in 1974 to more than 500 last year.

The dramatic rise in private and commercial flights which is expected to continue through the 1980s underscores the urgency of instituting new, more efficient policing measures. Federal aviation officials trying to cope with inflation and cutbacks in federal spending caution that, without sufficient funds to put more new and costly computerized air traffic equipment into airports, it may be necessary eventually to "ration" or allocate the use of airspace in some areas.

Accidents involving commuter airlines and other small craft have jumped markedly, prompting the FAA to plan a comprehensive review of the rules and regulations governing general aviation. The tendency in the past has been for federal aviation officials to react to major crashes by initiating stiffer safeguards. Most major improvements in the US aviation safety system have followed such tragedies. The disturbing increase in near misses and the warnings of independent researchers should be sufficient to stir that same kind of official resolve now. Immediate steps are needed to ensure the safety of the flying public.

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