The Federal Aviation Administration "cannot say with assurance that airlines are complying with safety regulations," the General Accounting Office told Congress yesterday.

In testimony before a House aviation subcommittee, GAO Associate Director Herbert R. McClure said management shortcomings, inadequate training and lack of universally understood standards also make the FAA ill-prepared to add much-needed inspectors.

While the FAA has taken "real steps" to address those problems, McClure said, it is caught between the need to do more and insufficient information to decide what should be done. The FAA is "in a hole and needs to get out of that hole," he said.

McClure was reporting on a GAO study of the FAA at a time of growing public concern about the safety of the aviation industry that Congress deregulated in 1978.

He noted the number of scheduled airlines more than doubled from 240 to 500 between 1978 and 1984 and the number of airplanes in the domestic fleet rose from 3,000 to 4,200. The FAA, he said, "took few steps to monitor and deal with the impact of these increases on its inspection workload or staffing requirements" and "did not collect data on what inspections were or were not being performed or what the inspections showed."

He noted that the FAA is adding new inspectors but losing experienced ones. "By fiscal 1988, about 40 percent of FAA's inspectors will have less than three years' experience," he said.

Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, asked McClure about the complaints of Eastern Air Lines Chairman Frank Borman, who is fighting the FAA's proposed $9.5 million civil penalty for 78,000 alleged Eastern safety violations.

Borman has called many of the violations "technical" or "record-keeping" in nature and expressed concern that the historical "cooperative attitude" between the FAA and the airline industry is threatened.

"We're auditors. We consider independence an essential part of what we do . . . . ," McClure said. "We feel the FAA should have that point of view, too. If you are inspecting an organization for compliance with rules you think are important, you really should call the shots the way they are, regardless of the working relationship . . . .

"The whole system is built on airlines voluntarily complying. If they don't keep their records up to date, there is no way the FAA can know if an airline is complying," he said.

McClure applauded the FAA's new practice of using inspector teams to check airlines with which they have little familiarity and praised the nationwide inspection of all airlines ordered by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole in April 1984.

Nonetheless, he said, the FAA targeted more than 40 airlines for special inspections this year and "is not going to get to 20 of them." When the FAA does these inspections with hand-picked teams, its regular surveillance suffers, he said.

Anthony J. Broderick, an FAA associate administrator, agreed that goals will not be met but said changed priorities were responsible. He said special inspections were added for military charter airlines after the Arrow Air crash in Gander, Newfoundland, in December that killed 256 soldiers and crew and for jet engine repair shops because of concerns about engine maintenance.

Broderick said inspections such as the one at Eastern that resulted in the civil penalty recommendation have taken more time than planned.

By Aug. 1, the FAA will have completed or started in-depth inspections at 17 airlines and will have added several more by the end of the year, Broderick said.

"We don't have any factual arguments" with the GAO, he said. "We're viewing the same glass -- we see it as half-full with the water level rising; GAO sees it as half-empty and says, 'By God, you better fill it up fast.' "