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Safety in the skies // THE FAA'S MISSION

Congress has a straightforward job that requires immediate attention. It needs to relieve the Federal Aviation Administration of its duty as a promoter of aviation and direct the agency to concentrate on assuring the safety of air travel in this country.

The FAA should never be hampered by second thoughts (like cost to the airlines) when it considers ordering extra or updated safety measures for aircraft. And the public should not ever have to worry that the agency is more concerned about getting passengers into the air than seeing to the safety of their transportation.

The FAA's conflict in its dual responsibilities _ hyping flying and ensuring its safety _ has been magnified in the wake of the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades on May 11.

Previous to the crash, FAA inspectors testified before a Senate subcommittee about dangerous safety inspection violations. These include faking reports and lying about maintenance violations. So the idea that the FAA is deficient in its role as safety watchdog is not new. But it still is frightening, and if true, it invites disaster. In fact, Mary Fackler Schiavo, the Transportation Department's inspector general, said the agency had "serious deficiencies in airline inspections, parts and training and in the air traffic control system."

Add to this the troubled safety history of ValuJet itself, a record that was under scrutiny by the FAA before the Everglades crash. Also consider the increasingly competitive nature of the airline industry as smaller, start-up airlines fight for consumer dollars.

Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, said that the FAA never will have enough resources to be able to thoroughly inspect all of the aircraft under its jurisdiction. "It is essential for FAA to target inspection resources to the areas of the greatest safety risk." That makes all the more sense for the agency to be freed from its promotional duties.

Congress mandated these discordant duties for the FAA. Now it should see that this really is endangering the flying public. It should recharge the FAA and make safety its first and only mission.

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