EVEN THOUGH the experts and veteran travelers love to reassure the airborne nervous that flying is safer than driving, crossing busy streets or doing all sorts of routine daily things, it helps to have the federal government coming up with proposals and procedures to make things safer in the air. One recent announcement from the Federal Aviation Administration was hardly original or brilliant but perhaps needed saying from Washington: the agency has asked airlines to avoid assigning two inexperienced pilots to the same flight. In an advisory, the FAA recommends that in bad weather, captains make all takeoffs and landings when flying with copilots who have fewer than 100 hours of experience in the aircraft type they are flying. FAA chief T. Allan McArtor was quick to explain that "we're not suggesting an inexperienced pilot is not qualified," only that experience adds "familiarity, confidence and proficiency."
Fair enough, though not likely to produce measurable improvements in cockpit control. More important is word from the FAA that it is tightening rules regarding aircraft maintenance. The agency is directing airlines to repair equipment more promptly -- to reduce the number of deferred maintenance items through tighter deadlines. Because aircraft are built with redundant systems designed to get a plane home safely after something has gone wrong, rules have allowed an aircraft to continue operating with certain malfunctions until it passes through an airport where repairs can be made conveniently. This has led to abuses, Mr. McArtor says, "some gamesmansip with minimum equipment lists" that won't be allowed anymore.
The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, is establishing a permanent "safety auditors" office to oversee safety issues involving all agencies it controls. Its first assignment is to examine more than 200 safety recommendations made by its bureaucratic parent, a safety review task force established in 1983. These include 66 recommendations to the FAA on airport security, as well as issues involving rail, highway and mass transit systems.
All these minibursts of government suggestions, recommendations and new paper work may be little more than PR unless the agencies follow through with public reports and action against airlines that try to cut corners in the cockpit or on the maintenance lines. Passengers can't make these determinations themselves, even though their lives depend upon them.