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Save money or save passengers' lives

If we want to find out who is at fault for the seemingly endless series of tragedies besetting airline travel, we have only to look in the mirror. Whether it is the apparent decline in airline safety standards as evidenced by the ValuJet crash, the grounding of Kiwi or our vulnerability to terrorists, as could be the case with Flight 800, the source of the problem is all of us.

It is easy to blame the Federal Aviation Administration, when we have the sorry spectacle of finger-pointing at congressional hearings between FAA Administrator David Hinson and the former Department of Transportation inspector general, Mary Schiavo. It is easy to blame the DOT, when the same Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena who cannot restrain himself from crash-site homilies mumbles inarticulately before Congress. It is easy to blame Congress, whose hearings normalize the feuding between the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA, instead of ordering them to stop arguing and start solving problems.

Unfortunately, all of these faults are a function of size and humanity. All of these organizations are working under major handicaps, including budget reductions and our spin-meister culture, which allows anyone to apologize his way out of anything except being politically incorrect. These bureaucracies meet budget cuts by across-the-board salami slices; unfortunately, even a single slice of safety is too much.

The airlines are also afflicted by budgetary problems. Where once they were run by the open-cockpit pilots who had founded them, now they are managed by the same bottom-line-serving MBAs that run breakfast food and insurance companies.

How does the blame get back to you and me? Because we demand lower fares, and frighten the airline carriers into thinking that we will not pay the extra $10 or $20 per ticket it would take to resolve safety problems. We have been living in a fool's paradise for the past 10 years, comforted by the admittedly excellent safety records airlines have established. Unfortunately, those records were based on the past training and performance of the airline personnel involved, and as cheap fares have reduced profits and forced all airlines to greater economies, the personnel picture has changed from captain downto baggage smasher. If you don't believe me, simply watch the typical X-ray inspection of baggage done at any security checkpoint in the country. The people hired to do these jobs are at the low end of the minimum-wage food chain.

And the blame is also ours for our tolerance of Congress' inertia in dealing with the problems of the FAA. Who would believe that our country, while engaged in creating a space station, would have an air traffic control system that depends on vacuum tubes that belong in a table radio? Who would believe that we have failed to put the world's best explosive-sniffing devices in at all our terminals?

President Clinton could make history _ in a favorable light for once _ if he would set up a new, independent air safety organization, designed to take the immediate steps that will make us breathe a little easier when we fly, even if it costs a little more. Clinton should appoint _ and Congress should fund _ a safety czar to form an elite organization dedicated solely to air safety.

For openers, the czar could get the most modern explosive-detection devices installed at every airport as soon as possible and take airport security out of the hands of the airlines, who inevitably pay as little as possible to their security help. He could decree that airports are a rigorous point of departure and not a minimall. Only passengers should be given access to the airport _ pickups and drop-offs should be at points well beyond the blast range of explosive-laden trucks. Similarly, the czar could insist that the control of the baggage area be airtight, with highly trained personnel to inspect, seal and move the baggage. He could insist that sufficient qualified people be hired and trained to create enough new inspectors to do hands-on inspection of airline training, maintenance and repair.

Who will pay for this? The passengers _ with a user tax. Start out at $10 a ticket and go to $100 if need be.

So it's up to us. We should be mad as hell, and we shouldn't take it any more. What will it take to really make us angry?

Walter J. Boyne is the author of several books on aviation.

Special to Newsday