To the accusation that they report only bad news, journalists reply: we can't be expected to report planes that land safely. But when a crash crystallizes anxiety about air safety, journalism should stress the news -- yes, news -- that flying is astonishingly safe.
Travel on U.S. commercial airlines is the safest form of transportation ever devised. Considering the hazards to pedestrians through the ages -- prehistoric tigers, medieval brigands and today's muggers -- flying is much safer than walking. And it has been becoming safer. The fatality rate per flying hour in 1986 was about half what it was in 1978. That drop coincided with deregulation, which dropped fares and democratized air travel. In 1967, only 10 percent of the population had ever flown. Last year alone, 31 percent of the adult population flew. In 1978, 275 million flew. This year, 450 million will.
The irrational fear of flying involves a mistaken apprehension of midair collision, particularly with small private planes that are 98 percent of all aircraft. Their operators constitute an upscale and ferocious lobby in defense of the sovereign American right to be mobile. They are not apt to be grounded. But they, too, have a remarkable safety record.
Still, as a safety expert says, it is possible to skate successfully on thin ice, but is better to skate on thick ice. Increased vigilance and spending are in order. The post-deregulation proliferation and then merging of airlines (today nine carriers have 90 percent of the passengers; at 15 major airports, one carrier has at least 50 percent or two have at least 70 percent of the business) have caused financial and morale problems that are producing maintenance and operational problems.
Today safety is being purchased by sacrificing service. Delays are inevitable because of the rising ratio of metal to tarmac: the number of planes is increasing much more rapidly than airport facilities. Everyone wants more airports; no one wants one next door. American government is a thickening web of blocking mechanisms, and Americans are increasingly skillful and aggressive in using those mechanisms, principally courts, to stymie action. Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and other cities need new airports, but there probably will be no major airport built in the foreseeable future.
The problem is not money. There is a $5.6 billion surplus in the Aviation Trust Fund -- your tax dollars not at work. The money is put there by users of the air system, principally travelers who pay an 8 percent excise tax on tickets. The politics of ''deficit reduction'' causes the administration and Congress to hoard the trust fund, to avoid adding a drop to the bucket of red ink.
This is preposterous parsimony in an air system short of controllers and the remarkable technology for early warning of wind shears, the cause of three crashes that have killed 404 people since 1975. If another such crash occurs because available technology was not purchased, there will be blood on the hands of all those who have made cheese-paring conservatism the doctrine of this decade.
Journalism often manufactures these.
Facts about AIDS filter slowly through the fog of media-driven alarm, facts such as reports from the Centers for Disease Control that there is no evidence that AIDS will reach epidemic proportions among heterosexuals other than intravenous drug abusers. Because highway and handgun carnage is constant and spread across the continent, the carnage is not as telegenic or newsworthy as rare air tragedies.
But journalism should do justice to the fact that last year the average daily death rate from automobile accidents was 126. The average Sunday toll was probably higher than the 156 killed in the Detroit air crash two Sundays ago. Any politician inflaming public anxiety by declaiming about the ''crisis'' in air safety should be asked how he voted on increasing from 55 to 65 miles per hour the speed limit on rural interstate highways. That change will have the predictable result of producing far more fatalities each year than will result from airplane mishaps.
Suicide and homicide together are, after accidents and cancer and heart disease, the fourth leading cause of American deaths. Guns were involved in 61 percent -- approximately 12,000 -- of last year's 19,796 homicides. That one-year total of gun-related homicides is nearly double the number of fatalities from all accidents in the history of U.S. commercial aviation. Lawmakers who will not control handguns should not fly around making speeches about air safety.