Flying is still safe, panel chief asserts. Recommends stronger leadership in the FAA, better maintained planes

While investigators continue to analyze the Aug. 16 airline crash in Detroit, another group - the President's Commission on Aviation Safety - is looking at the entire air-safety question. Here are edited comments of commission chairman Jack Albertine:

Is the system safe?

Yes, the system is incredibly safe. The $64 question is: Is the system getting less safe? That is a very tough question. Since there are so few fatalities, it's hard to get an index which correlates whether the system is getting more safe or less safe.

Should the public be concerned?

They should be concerned, there's no question. You've got to figure out: 1) What are the problems? and 2) What do you do about them? [But] all summer we've been hearing: Near misses! Near misses! Congestion! Air-traffic problems! And we have a crash that, at least on the surface, appears to have nothing to do with those issues. I think it's an instructive point.

How so?

Apparently, this is true about most aircraft accidents: There are a series of improbable events - one right on top of the other - that have to occur simultaneously for something to happen.

When you look at a real accident like that, you say: What broad generalizations can you draw from that? It's a puzzle.

What particular areas will the commission focus on?

You've got to look at maintenance. I happen to think that deregulation, from an economic point of view, is a good idea. [But] I've got to believe when you're under a lot of competitive pressure that there could be an incentive to meet the letter of the requirements and maybe not all of the spirit. So I think we have to look at whether or not there ought to be beefed-up requirements with respect to maintenance.

Other concerns?

Is the structure of the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] the one which is most likely to maximize the safety of the system as well as maximize the efficiency of the system? For example: We have a new FAA administrator. [But] if the Democrats win the presidency, I assume he'll be there for 18 months. This is a technical agency. There's a question in my mind whether we should be looking at fixed terms to give some continuity.

Some congressmen want to use the $5 billion Airport and Airway Trust Fund to reduce the budget deficit.

We're going to do an analysis of the trust fund. It ought to be used for enhancing the capacity of the system. It's a user tax.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I don't want to just write a report. I'm determined that the commission will influence public policy in this area before the commission report is finished [next April]. For example, there's a reauthorization bill which is working its way through Congress. That reauthorization bill touches on a number of issues that we should be in a position to make some comments on. You'll hear from us before April.

Will the system be improved?

There's no question in my mind that if there's any indication whatsoever that the system is becoming less safe, it will be made safe again.

Other commission members are: Washington attorney John Byington, Harvard professor Joseph Kalt, former airline official Michael Levine, Cessna chairman Russell Meyer, former Civil Aeronautics Board chairman John Robson, California businessman Thomas Wathen.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.