Between the worst year ever for air crashes and this current year of airport terrorism, many once-cool sky travelers have joined the ranks of the armrest-grippers -- and aren't likely to take comfort in this week's reports on the government's safety inspection difficulties. But before anyone lunges for the panic button, do know that somebody out there really does look under the hoods of those planes before they're rolled out for takeoff. The difficulties at the Federal Aviation Administration -- as outlined to Congress Wednesday by the General Accounting Office -- have to do with government monitoring of airline inspections. Obviously the public would like Uncle Sam to double-check every inspection done by every airline -- and that's not happening. What is happening, and what is challenging the FAA's efforts to keep up, is a rapid growth in the number of scheduled airlines: they more than doubled between 1978 and 1984 -- and the FAA didn't do enough to deal with heavier workloads and improved standards. And that remains the challenge.

The GAO found management shortcomings, inadequate training and lack of universally understood standards. While the GAO noted that the FAA has taken "real steps" to address these problems, the catch-up process could stand some more speed. The FAA is adding new inspectors but is losing experienced ones. GAO Associate Director Herbert R. McClure pointed out that by fiscal 1988, about 40 percent of the inspectors will have less than three years' experience. If there's any way to intensify their training, now's the time.

But as Mr. McClure also notes, "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." What the FAA is doing is to use inspector teams to check airlines with which they have little familiarity. That's fine, but according to the GAO it does take away from other regular surveillance.

Deregulation should not -- and does not -- mean an end to safety measures. It has changed the market, though, and the FAA should welcome concern in Congress that the agency may need more help to do the job thoroughly.