ONE LINE leaps out from the report by a panel of the National Research Council on the performance of the Federal Aviation Administration. It is that the FAA's staff faces fewer challenges and that less is expected of it than once was the case -- "a situation characteristic of a second-generation regulatory agency." The problem is a common one in Washington. Regulatory agencies are created to solve difficult problems; once the basic problems are solved -- or thought to be -- the quality of an agency's work and staff begins to slip and, unless remedial action is taken, the agency itself slips into lethargy and inefficiency.

The panel does not suggest that this is a serious problem yet for the FAA. It commends the remarkably good safety record of part of the agency it was charged with studying -- the part that deals with the licensing and airworthiness of the big airliners. But the panel warns that some major changes are needed in the FAA's internal structure and in its procedures if that record is to be sustained into the future.

The situation, as the panel sees it, is that airliners can be built and maintained in ways that make them safer than they are today but only if the FAA can attract to its staff personnel with the imagination to foresee "unlikely" problems and deal with them before they arise.

From that flow the key recommendations of the panel that the FAA reorganize so it can compete better with private industry for the best engineers, that it inject itself earlier into the process by which new airliners are designed and that its top management be given greater job security than now exists.

The rest of the report pinpoints deficiencies in the FAA's design supervision and maintenance procedures that have crept into its operations over the years. Many of these can, and should be, corrected quickly, and only a few have had any impact so far on aviation safety. The numbers bear this out. Since jet planes began hauling passengers 22 years ago, only 16 of the 216 fatal accidents involving commercial airliners have been attributed to failures in the airplanes or their equipment. The rest were due to human error or shortcomings in air traffic control.

It is, therefore, the heart of the report -- the warnings about the future deterioration of the FAA -- that Secretary of Transportation Goldschmidt and Congress should pay attention to. The second-generation malaise at the FAA could be hazardous to your health.