The flying public should focus on airline safety, not on-time performance or baggage handling, says Mary Schiavo, who quit as the Transportation Department's inspector general last year in a flurry of criticism of federal air safety programs.

If an airline is shoddy, "the public has to get off," said Schiavo, who returned here yesterday to promote her new book, "Flying Blind, Flying Safe."

Schiavo, who now teaches at Ohio State University, continued her long-running criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration. She accuses the agency of having a "tombstone mentality," imposing regulations only after a disaster and being reluctant to make rules that are costly to the airlines.

The FAA has a "culture of unaccountability," she said, noting that she refused to fly on ValuJet before its May 11, 1996, crash in Florida, which killed 110 people. The FAA grounded the airline a month after the accident because of concerns about its maintenance procedures, although those are not suspect in the deadly accident.

Responding to her comments, the FAA issued a statement yesterday saying, "The American aviation system is the safest in the world, carrying 1.6 million passengers safely every day. This year the FAA will spend $4.4 billion on enforcement, inspections and other safety measures, and that will increase to $4.9 billion next year to meet aviation growth and ensure that our nation's skies remain the safest in the world."

In her book, Schiavo describes problems at the agency over the last several years, including the hiring of a consultant to conduct training, lengthy delays in installing new air traffic control equipment and repeated inspections of some airlines while others had few checks.

"It's time to make changes . . .," she said. "It's going to take public pressure to make the FAA change."

She also repeated her call for regular safety ratings of airlines, noting that data compiled by the government show Southwest with the nation's lowest accident and incident rate, followed by America West and USAir, which recently was renamed US Airways.

Continental, Delta and American have the highest accident and incident rates, she says in her book, with Northwest, TWA and United falling in the middle.

"If this information is put forward the airlines will become more and more competitive on safety," she said.