Safe Skies for Domestic Airlines

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena is to meet next month with airline executives and aviation experts to discuss what can be done to improve airline safety. He has also ordered a safety audit of every airline and speeded up the introduction of stricter safety rules for commuter airlines.

Mr. Pena is right to respond quickly to public concern. This year, 257 people have been killed in domestic airline accidents -- including 215 in a string of crashes this fall in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina. Those crashes, coupled with lingering concerns about USAir's safety record -- the Pittsburgh crash that killed 132 on Sept. 8 was the carrier's second this RTC year -- have heightened public fears about air safety just as the holiday travel season gets under way.

Travel on U.S. carriers is still fundamentally safe. Last year, for example, there was not a single fatality from a domestic commercial airline accident -- a record of which the airline industry is justifiably proud. When accidents do happen, however, they tend to occur in bunches, and the resultant publicity -- sometimes fed by misleading and alarmist statements by purported "experts" -- invariably erodes public confidence in the safety of commercial air transport.

The Federal Aviation Administration shares in the blame. It has not always acted quickly enough on measures that might prevent accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board has cited 93 crashes over the last 11 years, resulting in 576 fatalities, in which FAA inaction was a factor.

For example, the so-called "two-tiered" safety standard -- one for jets and big turboprops, another for small turboprops -- gave commuter airlines a grace period last spring that allowed them to use less sophisticated systems for two years before they had to install the kind of state-of-the-art equipment that is mandatory on jets. And for more than a decade the agency dragged its feet on imposing tougher rules for de-icing aircraft, until a USAir crash killed 27 people at La Guardia Airport in New York in March 1992.

Mr. Pena has promised to speed up issuing new rules that would impose a single safety standard on both large jets and small commuter craft. He might also look into upgrading pilot training programs, since human error remains the leading cause of accidents.

Many of the proposed changes in standards were already in the pipeline, but Mr. Pena now has given them new urgency. He should do whatever it takes to show the government intends to keep the skies safe for air travelers.

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