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Experts wonder if cargo blew up // FAA WORRIES:

It will be weeks, possibly months or more, before anyone knows what caused ValuJet Flight 592 to slice into the muck of the Everglades on Saturday, killing all 109 aboard.

What has come into focus quickly, however, is growing concern about the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency charged with ensuring air flight safety in the United States, to do its job adequately.

Those fears have been heightened by the fact that at the time of the crash, the FAA already had ValuJet's safety record under scrutiny.

The emerging image is of an agency with too few people to do too much work in too little time, hampered by conflicting mandates and cozy relationships where adversarial associations are needed.

Last year, the FAA conducted 878,000 inspections with 2,000 inspectors. That is, on average, 439 procedures per inspector per year, a little more than 1.2 per day with no time off for weekends, holidays, vacations, sick leave or travel between facilities.

Experts say the situation is bound to lead to problems.

National Transportation Safety Board reports issued over the past 11 years conclude that poor FAA inspection and reporting contributed to 48 crashes that killed more than 330 people.

Stories about failures of FAA inspections to catch safety problems before they became accidents have surfaced in sufficient numbers in recent years to alarm members of Congress and others.

Mary Fackler Schiavo, the Transportation Department's inspector general, has been fighting for improvements in FAA inspection procedures for all of her 5{ years in office. Last January, her frustrations ran over in an angry memo to FAA Administrator David R. Hinson.

After loosing a barrage of examples, Schiavo wrote:

"While each of these abuses (is) vastly different, there is a common thread . . . the mind-set within the FAA that managers are not held accountable for decisions that reflect poor judgment. Until senior management is willing to send a different message, I suspect that the pattern will unfortunately continue."

Hinson acknowledged that changes were coming more slowly than he liked, but he cautioned against moving too fast and jeopardizing airline safety.

On Tuesday, however, responding to concerns and under orders from President Clinton, the FAA announced it would hire an additional 100 inspectors by next month and 200 to 300 more by the end of the year, a move that could potentially expand its inspection staff by 20 percent.

But experts say sheer numbers are not the answer. The FAA's greater problem can be traced to its origins, when Congress mandated a dual responsibility to ensure aviation safety and promote the American airline industry at the same time.

The charge was bound to lead to conflicts. The FAA found itself, on one hand, keeping a tight and sometimes expensive check on the procedures and practices of U.S.-based airlines while, at the same time, helping them grow and prosper. Too often, some critics say, safety got short shrift.

"While ensuring that FAA maintains a trained and qualified inspection corps is essential, another critical challenge facing FAA is its effective use of limited assets," Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, said at a hearing two weeks ago. "Because the FAA will never have sufficient resources to fully inspect the thousands of entities within its jurisdiction, it is essential for FAA to target inspection resources to the areas of the greatest safety risk.

". . . Sometimes, improvement requires being brutally honest about one's own shortcomings. This is something most federal agencies are not accustomed to doing."

Among the tragic outcomes of those failures:

Two FAA officials responsible for safety inspections at a large charter-jet company in Pennsylvania known for its celebrity clients were indicted in 1992. Among other things, they were charged with advising airline owners and employees to create a double set of books to conceal aircraft safety violations rather than correct them.

During the course of the investigation, it was learned that the inspectors worked in an office on the same airfield as the charter company and were close social friends of the airline's owner.

After a turboprop plane crashed in 1993, killing all 18 aboard, the NTSB found that the FAA operations inspector assigned to the airline wasn't qualified to fly the plane that crashed and had failed two ground school courses designed to teach him about the aircraft.

Furthermore, in a 24-year FAA career, he had never taken the course for operations inspectors, those responsible for certifying pilot proficiency.

In 1985, a DC-8 charter flown by Miami-based carrier Arrow Air crashed in Newfoundland, killing 256 soldiers, most from the United States, who were headed home for Christmas. The cause of the crash was never determined, but investigators found a litany of maintenance violations among Arrow's aircraft, including windows and panels held in place with masking tape.

The FAA inspectors who missed the problems were not fired. Nor were they retrained. They were merely reassigned.

On the other hand, ValuJet president Lewis Jordan says that in the weeks his airline has been under FAA scrutiny, procedures have been anything but lax.

"They've conducted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of inspections," Jordan said Tuesday. He rejected Schiavo's criticism that the FAA has "gone soft" on ValuJet. "If she thinks the FAA has gone easy on us, she just doesn't understand and has not lived with us the last few months."

Following is an example of what FAA inspections often involve:

Of the 878,000 inspections conducted last year, 310,000 were done on commercial air carriers, an average of one inspection for every 39 flights.

Pilots and flight crews were checked for appropriate licenses and medical certificates, and cockpit crews were observed during flights for technical skills, crew coordination and communication.

Inspectors checked pressure in cabin oxygen systems, performed spot checks on seat belts and seat backs, checked that required equipment was on planes and working properly and checked the overall condition of the interiors of the cabins.

The exterior of planes were checked for holes, leaks, dents and other problems. Repairs were ordered when needed.

Other checks made sure a plane's weight and balance _ that the overall weight of passengers, baggage and fuel was not excessive and was distributed properly. Inspectors satisfied themselves that flights had sufficient fuel on board.

Inspectors also checked maintenance logs looking for repeat repairs or troublesome trends. Such trends could lead to grounding of an aircraft.

_ Times staff writer Bill Adair and researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which contains information from the New York Times and the Associated Press.

Fleets' ages: Here's a comparison of the average age, in years, of the planes for airlines (total number in fleet):

Southwest (226) 8.3

American (664) 9.2

America West (93) 10.1

Delta (539) 11.5

United (577) 11.6

USAir (434) 12.4

Continental (299) 13.9

Northwest (389) 19.1

TWA (195) 19.8

Kiwi (16) 22.8

ValuJet (51) 26.4

FAA's plans to improve: Federal Aviation Administration Administrator David Hinson has outlined the steps he will take to improve the FAA, as requested by President Bill Clinton: 1. Will hire 100 more inspectors by June. 2. Upgrade computers to better track aviation activity. 3. Review of how inspectors are trained, assigned and supervised.