William J. Everett, a Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector, is personally responsible for guaranteeing the flying public that maintenance is up to snuff at 18 small airlines, three big-name passenger airlines, two cargo airlines and 24 aviation repair shops.

He has two assistants who do most of that work now because he is filling in for his supervisor. Two FAA big wheels are watching when a reporter asks, "Can you do all that work?"

"Yes sir," he says.

Everett's job is obviously enormous, beyond the ability of any three-man team, despite his words of assurance. His situation is brought on by the new realities of the aviation business, realities also illustrated by last week's announcement that the FAA has proposed a $9.5 million civil penalty against Eastern Air Lines for maintenance violations.

The question is whether airline deregulation in 1978 has resulted, seven years later, in a reduction in safety.

The answer is equivocal, involving such issues as a shortage of inspectors, the greatly increased FAA workload due to a new government attitude that lets anyone try to become an airline, and federal safety standards that have not been changed since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

U.S. aviation industry officials and the FAA say they think that, in part, they are taking the heat for a problem that is not theirs. Despite the startling accidents of last year -- more than 2,000 dead worldwide -- the crashes involving the biggest loss of life, Japan Air Lines and Air India, had nothing to do with the FAA.

However, there were five major crashes involving U.S. airlines: Eastern in Bolivia, Galaxy in Reno, Nev., Delta in Dallas, Midwest Express in Milwaukee and Arrow in Gander, Newfoundland. The big-plane death toll, 526, was second only to the 655 fatalities in 1977, the year of the monstrous runway collision at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The fact that accident rates and fatality rates moved only fractions last year provides small comfort.

The FAA inspection staff has always been short-handed and has always relied largely on voluntary compliance enforced with occasional spot checks. Former Braniff pilot John Nance, author of a new book on safety, "Blind Trust," calls it "an honor system."

A respected aviation safety specialist who does consulting work for many airlines and asked not to be identified said, "We have seen that the industry cannot be relied upon to regulate itself in safety. I'm not arguing you can't make a safer system under deregulation, but if you're going to do that, you have to do something else to provide safety checks and balances.

"Airline management can't hide cost-cutting very easily in flight operations, because that's too easy to see. They can in maintenance. What kind of environmental attitudes are the new mechanics seeing?"

Despite the problems, some of the FAA's frequent critics agree that it is doing a better, more aggressive job now than it has in years. The proposed record penalty at Eastern follows stiff civil penalties at American, Western and Alaska airlines and shows that the agency is moving from its traditional buddy-buddy relationship with the industry, the critics say. A total of 63 airlines, all small, last year were grounded briefly or forever.

"We're very happy with the FAA response to the items we bring to their attention," said John O'Brien, chief safety engineer with the Air Line Pilots Association and a frequent FAA critic.

Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Public Works Aviation subcommittee, said, "I think the FAA is finally getting the message that the traveling public wants a tough enforcer, so I back what the FAA is doing . . . . In terms of maintenance, you don't know what is happening, the only way you know is through the inspection service."

Mineta has been a nagging pain in the neck at the Transportation Department, urging more inspectors. The FAA inspector corps at major airlines hit its peak of 812 in 1971, during a flurry of accidents and years before deregulation. But five years after deregulation, in 1983, the number had dropped to 569. It climbed back to 674 by the end of last year as the concerns about surveillance of a deregulated industry began to suppress the Reagan administration's enthusiasm for FAA budget-cutting.

The potential effects of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law are creating new concerns within the FAA, but Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has promised to protect new inspector and air traffic controller positions, one way or another.

Safety has a price, and before 1978, it was easy for a comfortable, regulated airline to pay. It could ignore costs, because fare increases were always approved by the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board. Now, with airline management staffed more and more with business-school types instead of airline pioneers, cost pressure is on everybody, from the maintenance manager to the vice president for pilot training.

"Airlines certainly do operate on an honor system in that there is not an inspector on every flight," said FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen. "We do fly, and check and spot check." He noted the obvious, that an FAA inspector at every maintenance stand or flight crew training session would create an enormous bureaucracy and said, "We have got to see what this nation can afford."

The South Florida Flight Standards District Office, where FAA inspector Everett works, is responsible for 145 repair stations, Eastern Air Lines, a good chunk of Pan American World Airways, the now-bankrupt Arrow Air Inc., and 62 other airlines or for-hire small operators, mostly unheard of, many flying tired planes from Miami International Airport's famous so-called "Cockroach Corner."

It is, the FAA says, the busiest safety surveillance office in the country. It has an authorized strength of 186 federal employes. The number of people actually in place is exactly half, 93, and 15 of those are clerical.

Last year, those 93 people were supposed to watch all those airlines and maintenance shops. Additionally, they certified as airworthy 39 new -- mostly small -- airlines and 12 repair stations. Each new certificate requires approval of training programs, maintenance manuals, management qualifications and equipment, and requires an enormous amount of manpower.

"There is no question that to handle the existing workload takes away from surveillance," said William M. Berry Jr., manager of the FAA's Southern Region flight standards division in Atlanta, which oversees the Miami office.

FAA officials are privately angry at the parent Department of Transportation, which inherited the old CAB regulatory responsibility for determining whether a would-be airline is "fit, willing and able to serve." In the FAA view, the department rubber-stamps fitness applications without regard to whether there is any chance of success.

"We're getting a lot of people who know nothing about aviation," an FAA source said. "We're put under enormous pressure from the White House, from congresssmen, to tell them what they need and get them started. A large number go bankrupt, and small operators are forever buying and selling airplanes. It puts an enormous burden on our people," because all those transactions have to be monitored.

The number of U.S. airlines in business, large and small, scheduled and charter, increased from 179 in 1979, the first year of deregulation, to 499 by the end of 1983. There has been some consolidation since then, particularly among small airlines, and the most recent figures are not available. But each change, each merger, puts another inspection requirement on the FAA.

The FAA tries to follow a squeaky-wheel philosophy, and its inspectors are inclined to spend more time watching an obscure, inexperienced, financially troubled three-plane operator than they do watching American or Eastern -- until somebody or some dramatic incident rings the bell.

Top DOT officials, espousing the logical economic argument that a fitness test is nothing but an artificial barrier to competition, vigorously opposed legislation that gave it the CAB fitness responsibility. Now that the responsibility is theirs, "We're under enormous pressure to push the airline applications," a DOT source said.

Dole said the DOT fitness test is "basically the same as what the CAB did." Safety standards, she said, have not been diminished: "When you get to a situation where a carrier gets into economic difficulty, we're watching it like a hawk."

In the field, the FAA's Berry said, deregulation has had "two unanticipated impacts:"

*No one thought that "so many people would try to go into business as airlines," straining the inspector corps.

*"We didn't envision that airlines would be able to contract for maintenance and training" to the degree that they have. Many new airlines -- People Express is the outstanding example -- have built little of their own infrastructure. They farm out training and maintenance to other companies, sometimes other airlines, which means the FAA has to "try and find the airline," as former FAA Chief Langhorne M. Bond says.

Anthony J. Broderick, FAA associate administrator for aviation standards and the man whose troops are responsible for policing the industry, agrees that the FAA was surprised by the number of new airlines and the added requirements for surveillance at the old carriers, but said, "I think the shortcomings have been caught in time."

Dole proclaims safety as her first priority and has shaken up the FAA by ordering such things as a nationwide inspection of every airline, which she did in 1983.

That resulted in SWAT-team-like follow-up inspections at several airlines and a new procedure to circumvent the old familiarity problem: every major carrier is being checked by inspectors from offices other than the one that usually deals with the airline. A team is working now at Pan Am and another team will start soon at Delta.

Dole points out that she has authorized the hiring of 500 new air safety inspectors, and takes comfort in numbers. "The statistics show that in the seven years after deregulation as opposed to the five years before, it's better in terms of lower fatality rate, lower accident rate," she said. "We are more vigilant in enforcing regulations. We had $3 million last year in fines. We changed the inspection procedures, and I think they are paying off."

Half of that $3 million came from American, one of 1,218 individuals or companies paying civil penalties. A year earlier, such fines for violations involving safety and hazardous materials totaled $1.4 million paid by 1,602 individuals or companies.

Thus part of the perception of decreased safety can be attributed to more vigorous FAA enforcement that is resulting in big headlines and big penalties, a point airline executives make with some irritation.

The thread from which safety hangs is thin but complex, involving regulation, inspection and aggressiveness as well as high numbers. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Jim Burnett says of the FAA, "I don't think they're going to be able to do it simply by adding people. It's a good idea to toughen up on enforcement policies."

Burnett is also concerned about the status of FAA regulations. "There has been no attempt to consistently study the minimum federal regulations to see what needs to be changed," he said.

Under federal law, the FAA establishes only "minimum" safety standards, but airlines are required to operate "to the highest possible degree of safety."

However, critics charge, the difference between minimum and highest degree has dwindled as entrepreneurial skills became more important in a tensely competitive industry. There is no question that consumers have enjoyed reduced fares, which have fed aviation's record growth, which in turn increased the complexity of regulating safety.

Hollis I. Harris, senior vice president of operations at Delta Air Lines, said, "I think we work extra hard to make sure that pressure to lower costs in no way becomes a part of our management decisions in any area that affects safety."

The FAA is in the early stages of rewriting regulations for major airlines, partly to clean up requirements from the propeller era, but also to tighten the screws, to raise the "minimum" floor.

But first, Broderick said, the FAA will revise inspector handbooks for maintenance and operations to eliminate regional differences in standards.

"We thought it was more important to redo the handbooks," Broderick said. "Once those are done, the people will work into the regulatory rewrite program."

A rewriting of the small-plane, commuter airline rules occurred in the late 1970s, after a rash of accidents underlined an enormous gap in safety requirements for big and small planes. Since that was accomplished in 1979, there has been a steady decline in commuter accidents and 1985 was the safest year in commuter history.

Donald W. Madole, who once headed the aviation safety office in the CAB that became the NTSB, now makes a very good living as a plaintiff's attorney suing airlines, airplane manufacturers and the FAA after accidents.

Asked if deregulation has hurt safety, he said, "No question. If we didn't have the staffing and the personnel under regulation to asssure that the regulations were complied with then, how can we do it with all of this going on?"

The plane crashes of 1985, as best as can be determined, happened because of pilot error (Bolivia and Reno), wind shear (Dallas), engine failure (Milwaukee) and weight miscalculation abetted by ice on the wings (Gander).

When, Madole asked, "are we going to have an accident with a new cause?"