IT SHOULD BE relatively easy for the Federal Aviation Administration to agree with at least one of the recommendations for its operations made by the House Government Operations Committee. That is the proposal that the FAA be stripped of its legal obligation to promote and encourage aviation. The conflict between that and the agency's primary role -- aviation safety -- is clear. The FAA is going to have enough trouble in the years ahead keeping airways and airplanes as safe as possible without having to think about fostering the development of civil aeronautics.
This conflict may not have caused the FAA much difficulty in the past. Administrator Langhorne Bond told the committee he had never encountered a situation in which the promotional role of the agency impeded its safety enforcement authority. But in his own testimony there was a hint of how the two roles can conflict. Over the years, he said, "our people have gotten a bit of the notion that we are both coach as well as policeman in this industry. . . . I do not think we have been tough enough."
The aftermath of that DC10 crash in Chicago almost a year ago underlined the potential problem.
The FAA had to balance safety considerations against its obligation to promote aviation commerce when it was asked to ground all DC10s. While its answer might have been the same as it was without that balancing process, it also might not have been.
Economic considerations cannot and should not be totally ignored when safety requirements are established; a completely safe air system would be economically impossible to operate. But the FAA should not be able to argue, as it came close to arguing last summer, that its power to take safety measures is limited by its obligations to promote the aviation business.
As originally conceived, the FAA was to be an agency that single-mindedly pursued safety. That is what it ought to be. But somewhere along the way, it picked up the extraneous aviation responsibilities, such as operating National and Dulles airports, of the Department of Transportation. These are the assignments that should go somewhere else. Then the agency could devote all its attention to making aviation as safe as possible, a job that is going to get even tougher as the big airliners age and the number of planes in the air increases.