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Toward safer skies

By ordering new measures to strengthen aviation security, President Clinton has made a tacit admission that our airlines and regulators have allowed safety to be unduly compromised by market pressures to make commercial air travel as cheap and convenient as possible.

The relatively modest safeguards ordered by the president will not come close to protecting airlines from all kinds of terrorist threats. They stop well short of the stringent _ as well as costly and time-consuming _ security measures that already are standard for many international airports and airlines. However, they represent a prudent and cost-effective first step toward making commercial airlines in this country less inviting targets for terrorists.

The president acknowledged that even minor changes such as increased hand searches of passenger luggage "could increase the inconvenience and the expense of air travel." No doubt some passengers will complain about the prospect of spending an additional $10 for a ticket, or an additional 10 minutes waiting to board a plane. But reasonable people are willing to make reasonable sacrifices to assure a higher level of security.

Although the cause of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 remains undetermined, the federal response to the disaster parallels the actions taken following the May 11 crash of a ValuJet plane in the Everglades. That crash, whose cause also is still under investigation, prompted federal officials to take a belated look at the safety compromises that resulted from airline deregulation and the subsequent entry of several aggressively competitive cut-rate carriers into the market. Even if Flight 800 turns out not to have been brought down by a bomb, the president's order represents an overdue effort to reinforce a security system that has lagged dangerously behind the technology of terrorism.

President Clinton gave his support to another worthwhile proposal Wednesday: the creation of a family advocate's office at the National Transportation Safety Board. The airlines and federal authorities generally do a commendable job of dealing honestly and humanely with the families of crash victims, but coordinating those efforts in a single office would help grieving families know where to turn for help and answers.

In the case of the TWA crash, relatives have had some valid complaints, including slow and inaccurate notification from the airline. In their grief, others have lashed out unfairly at the heroic crews working to retrieve the plane and its victims. A family advocate's office would at least give desperate families an outlet for their questions and concerns. However, it is even more important that the federal government work quickly to put in place tighter safety and security measures that will reduce the frequency of such tragedies.

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