For safer air travel

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IT is clearly time for Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, and outside organizations to undertake wide-ranging examinations of airline safety. The vast majority of airplane travelers fly in safety, yet 1985 has not been a good year for the industry worldwide, with a record number of major commercial accidents. Several examinations have already begun. The FAA is studying its safety inspection program. So is the General Accounting Office. And a House subcommittee has just reported on the air traffic controller system.

This attention is welcome. But circumstances also require a broader study of all aspects of safety -- from design, construction, and maintenance of planes, to training of airline employees and controllers, to proper staffing and working conditions for persons involved in air safety.

Already it is evident that several steps can be taken to improve safety. One is to increase the number of FAA inspectors charged with overseeing the performance and safety of all airlines and planes. The FAA seeks 150 additional inspectors this year; it now has 674. This week the House of Representatives approved money for 200 inspectors beyond the current level.

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More inspectors are probably required because of airline deregulation. The number of airlines that fly large planes has more than doubled over the past half-dozen years; yet the size and capacity of the FAA inspector staff to monitor those airlines has not increased significantly. As one consequence, says the GAO report in a preliminary finding, some airlines receive far fewer inspections than others. The FAA should be able not only to make more frequent inspections, but to spend more time on each occas ion checking not only records but also the airlines' actual maintenance procedures.

It may be, as well, that studies of recent crashes will yield new information about the limit of endurance of engines or structural portions of some planes. The FAA requires that specific parts of airplanes be replaced at set intervals; some parts may require more frequent replacement. Venerable DC-3s and other aircraft much older than most in commercial service fly for decades in safety, with periodic replacement of engine and other parts.

The report on air traffic control deserves careful attention. It concludes that the same complaints of traffic controllers that led to their 1981 strike exist today: too many hours at work, with safety ramifications. And it charges, as has been said in the past, that too few of the current controllers are fully experienced, a problem that would ultimately be solved by time.

Until that point is reached, however, it might be wise for the airlines to reduce their daily flights, so as to decrease air congestion and relieve pressure on controllers.

Individual travelers have a role, too. Could some achieve just as much by slowing down and stretching out their travel? Or by using trains or buses for shorter distances? Some trips might be avoided by staying home and using sophisticated electronic communications.

Society should refuse to accept the idea that pressures of schedule, time, and profit demand so high a level of urgent travel that opportunity and means cannot be found to make air travel adequately safe.

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