Quest for safer air travel marks end of a bad year for commercial aviation

As the worst year in international commercial aviation comes to a close, a crucial question persists: Can the increasingly crowded skies be made safer? A growing number of aviation safety experts, pilots, and members of Congress insist the answer is ``yes.'' And they continue to press for improvements wherever they find an opening.

Even Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Donald Engen, whose agency is often the target of such attempted reforms and who counts the current system safe, says he considers every accident preventable.

Air traffic in the United States is sharply up at a time when the general experience level of many of those guiding, flying, and maintaining the planes is down. Federal controls over routes and rates have been lifted. This has spurred increased competition among air carriers and has renewed concern that, for cost reasons, safety may be getting short shrift. In a five-part series beginning today, the Monitor looks at these problems and what is being done to solve them.

In 1985, there have been more fatalities -- 1,948, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization -- than in any previous year.

For United States commercial air carriers it was the second-worst year in the decade (1977 holds the record) for aviation fatalities. As a result, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio announced on Thursday that the Senate Select Subcommittee on Investigations will probe all elements of air safety, including maintenance, inspection, equipment, and air traffic control.

It has been four years since the majority of the nation's air traffic controllers were fired after an illegal strike. The system has been virtually rebuilt from scratch. But the level of training and seasoning among replacement controllers is still far short of what it was before the strike. Stress and morale problems, which contributed to the strike, persist.

Since federal economic controls over the airlines were lifted in 1978, several air carriers have launched massive expansion plans and many new ones have entered the market. The demand for more pilots and maintenance workers has shot up accordingly at a time when many experienced people in the industry are nearing retirement age.

The military has long been a traditional source of new pilots for airlines. But in recent years the Pentagon has been training fewer of them and paying them more to stay aboard. As a result, many major airlines are dipping into the ranks of commuter, corporate, and general-aviation pilots to meet the demand. It is causing a steady turnover. ``The experience level of pilots is going to be going down -- the question is how to make up for it,'' says House Aviation Subcommittee chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D)

of California, who favors required simulator training for pilots as one solution.

FAA officials frequently stress that there is no statistical evidence that deregulation has had any direct effect on safety. In fact, by FAA calculations there have been 45 percent fewer accidents among US-certified carriers since 1978 than in the seven years before deregulation.

But air safety experts say the question is really whether the less easily measurable, but no less vital, margin of safety is slowly being erased. A recent House Public Works Subcommittee report concludes that the increase in traffic and job pressure on controllers is reducing that safety margin.

Two-thirds of more than 1,200 commercial pilots surveyed at random by the Dallas Times Herald recently said they felt deregulation has made air travel more dangerous. ``The sky is not falling,'' comments Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) spokesman John Mazor, ``but there's been a steady erosion of safety.''

In his book ``Blind Trust,'' to be published in January, former Braniff pilot John J. Nance suggests that because of economic pressures, aviation safety is in ``serious trouble.''

``All airlines are on the honor system with respect to safety,'' says Mr. Nance, ``and not all are honorable.''

The Air Transport Association, which represents the industry, insists that safety is its No. 1 priority. But air safety experts say if the industry simply relies on minimum federal safety standards instead of its own often higher standards, as in the past, the traveling public loses a certain degree of protection.

This month ALPA announced it would launch a new independent foundation to do research on needed but largely ignored air safety areas, such as the problem of flight crews and alcoholism.

Changes in the entire airline industry are such these days that many safety experts say that a full-scale review of the adequacy of the FAA's minimum safety rules and tougher enforcement are vital.

``We're becoming more vigorous both in regulation and in surveillance. But we're certainly not up yet to where we need to be,'' observes James E. Burnett Jr., chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airline accidents and recommends improvements to the FAA. Next: Maintaining and inspecting the nation's commercial air fleet.

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