Making the skies safer

Recent hearings again spotlight the substantial need for the US airline industry, for all its laudable mile-by-mile record, to improve safety procedures. Lamentably, many of today's deficiencies are totally unnecessary; in several cases the problems have been known for years but little has been done to correct them.

One obvious and inexpensive move would be for the airlines to provide full safety training to all flight attendants, as the public has every right to expect. In recent congressional hearings some attendants said they had never actually used airplane fire extinguishers, and that some attendants may not know how to open their plane's emergency exits.

Another important move would be for the public's protector, the Federal Aviation Administration, to act with dispatch on fire safety issues. For a decade or more it has been known that many passengers who survive air crashes perish in subsequent fires due to asphyxiation. A major problem is the fumes given off during fire by plastic materials used in seat cushions and elsewhere in the cabin, yet the FAA has done little to make airlines outfit most planes with safer materials. (Some new airliners, it is good to note, have been built using preferable substances.)

The FAA says it soon will propose regulations requiring seats to be flame-resistant; it is important that these proposals be effective, and require action as swift as the law will allow.

An obvious action for the FAA to take forthwith: require that smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers be installed promptly in lavatories and lavatory wastebaskets. Experts say the key to controlling cabin fires is detecting and extinguishing them immediately. Lavatories can be unoccupied for substantial periods of time, and fire in them can get a head start without detection as it may have in the case last month of fire aboard an Air Canada plane, in which 23 passengers succumbed.

One other aspect of air safety needs attention: the question of how soon airlines should be permitted a full schedule of flights, still curtailed due to the firing of most US air controllers as a result of their 1981 strike. The FAA has sought to let airlines fly at full schedule by the end of this year; the National Transportation Safety Board thinks this is too soon. Their point, which seems well taken: that about half the current controllers are trainees, and that others are supervisors who instead should be monitoring controllers' performance.

An increased flight schedule ought not to be undertaken until a full complement of air controllers is thoroughly trained.

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