Safety in the Skies

THE Thanksgiving holiday weekend, traditionally the busiest travel time of the year, is over. But the Federal Aviation Administration and at least one major airline have just begun to take necessary action in the face of heightened concern over air-safety problems.

The latest airline accident took place last week in St. Louis, where a TWA jet ran into a small plane during takeoff. The smaller plane had strayed onto the wrong runway. Before that incident, the spotlight was on another major airline, USAir. On Sept. 8, a USAir flight with 132 people aboard crashed outside Pittsburgh. It was the airline's fifth crash in five years. In July, another USAir plane went down near Charlotte, N.C.

At the time of the fatal crash in Pittsburgh, a USAir spokesman said there was no thread of continuity between the accidents. The FAA said USAir's operations were safe and the airline met all industry safety and training standards. But a New York Times investigation after the accident revealed a number of safety and training lapses at USAir, including problems in following proper refueling and de-icing procedures. The FAA investigation of the crash continues.

The financially troubled airline rebutted the Times report, but clearly saw that it needed to take steps to resolve its safety problems, real or perceived. The action it has taken is a good start.

Last week, USAir announced the appointment of a retired Air Force general to a new position of chief of safety operations. It also hired a consulting firm to conduct an audit of its flight safety operations. In a full-page ad running in major newspapers around the country, USAir's chairman and chief executive, Seth Schofield, assures passengers that the ``expert team will go anywhere, ask any questions, and look at any records.... There will be no limits to the inquiry.''

Let us hope that USAir listens carefully to what these safety experts say and that other major airlines take note. Meanwhile, there should be no limits to measures taken to ensure the safety of all planes. Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board called on the FAA to put most commuter operations under the same rules the large carriers follow.

Overall, the performance of United States airlines is good. These and other steps, however, as well as the ongoing investigations into the causes of recent crashes, will go a long way to make sure that performance is the best it possibly can be.

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