STATISTICS may show that flying is safer than taking the car.
But a spate of recent fatal plane crashes has dampened public confidence in air travel. To help restore that trust, the entire aviation industry needs to recommit itself to a goal of ``zero accidents,'' say US regulatory officials.
Reaching for this ambitious standard would require upgrades in technology, improved training and aircraft inspections, and a speeded-up regulatory process.
Underlying these moves is a fundamental question: How much can airlines afford to spend on safety improvements given the bottom line constraints of an industry that has run $12.8 billion in the red since 1990?
Tight government budgets pose a similar funding question.
Still, ``We must commit ourselves to a new sense of urgency ... to quickly turn words into action,'' Secretary Federico Pena told participants at an airline safety conference sponsored by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) held in Washington this week.
In one recommendation, FAA Administrator David R. Hinson urged every airline to appoint an independent safety assessment officer who would report directly to senior management. Other ideas that emerged from the meeting of more than 1,000 airline executives, aviation professionals, and government officals included:
* Minimum mechanic training standards.
* Accelerated efforts by the FAA to oversee installation in aircraft and on the ground of new de-icing and guidance systems.
* Spoken English proficiency tests for commercial pilots.
* Standardized cockpit displays, controls, and aviation phraseology and development of a lexicon of standard terms to improve communications between pilots and air-traffic controllers.
* Improved pilot training programs, including expanded use of simulators.
* Steps to combat pilot fatigue.
Last year, the public's perception of airline travel was shaken as 264 people died in six commercial plane crashes in the United States. Three of the crashes involved commuter aircraft, which serve smaller airports and last year carried 50 million passengers. By early spring, the FAA is expected to issue new rules requiring commuter planes (those with 10 to 30 passengers) to meet the same safety standards as major carriers.
Public confidence in air travel was further shaken by the cold weather grounding of ATR commuter planes in December due to icing problems. The FAA is examining the problems and the restrictions could be lifted shortly.
Airline and government officials stress that despite the mishaps, US airlines are the world's safest, with almost 500 million people flying half a trillion miles in 1994. Between 1980 and 1992, almost 47,000 people died on America's roads, compared to 105 in crashes of US-scheduled airlines, they said.
Even so, they acknowledge that public confidence in air travel must be restored.
``The public demand for accident-free air transportation is something we can either strive to meet, or change jobs,'' says Anthony Broderick, an associate FAA administrator.
Transportation Secretary Pena pledges that within 30 days the FAA will issue ``a detailed plan with deadlines'' for implementing the 70 recommendations produced by the safety meeting. He and other participants, however, were unable to estimate the massive price tag the moves would carry.
Some observers doubt that the moves recommended can be implemented quickly. They noted that a number of these same safety recommendations had previously been proposed to either the FAA or the airlines, but no action had been taken.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James Hall, whose agency investigates air crashes, criticized the FAA for being ``slow to complete action on some very important safety problems, even after agreeing that action is required.''
He said the FAA was taking too long to develop and install new systems to make runways safer. ``While we wait for this equipment to come on line, we continue to see the kinds of accidents that prompted our recommendations in the first place,'' Mr. Hall added.
Some critics of the airline industry at the FAA-sponsored meetings added that their concern was that profit will come before safety in boardroom decisions.
While overall air travel remains safe, Randolph Babbitt, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said a ``myopic focus on cost'' by airlines has produced a``fairly constant erosion of the margins of safety.''
Hall criticized the conference's failure to include on its agenda ``issues of great concern to us, including `airline management,' and `FAA oversight.' Also absent is any reference to `safety management.'''
``Can we reach the goal of `zero accidents' without explicitly facing these issues?'' Hall asked. ``I think not.''