In proposing new emphasis on airline inspections, the President's Commission on Aviation Safety this week only did the prudent thing. Airline safety must always be the number one concern.
Two of the nation's largest air carriers - Continental and Eastern - currently are being subjected to detailed federal examination of their planes as part of government concerns over safety.The commission proposes making this kind of inspection a permanent on-going program for all airlines.
Airlines have their own inspection programs, of course, but the existence of strict outside examinations would sharpen standards and awareness for everyone.
The commission's recommendations - after a nine-month study - make good sense. Among the proposals:
- Separate the Federal Aviation Administration from the Department of Transportation and give it more independent authority, including appointment of a "safety czar" with broad powers.
- Adopt a permanent program of in-depth safety inspections of airlines, including surprise inspections.
- Tighten safety requirements for commuter airlines until they must meet the same standards as major air carriers. This should be done gradually so that the financial impact won't break commuter airlines.
- Require small, private planes flying near hub airports to have equipment that gives flight controllers altitude information. This is already being sought by the FAA.
Reaction to these proposals has been generally favorable, both from the FAA and the airline industry, although Congress would have to act in most cases something that could take a long while.
But delay should be kept at a minimum. The skies are safe, "for now," the commission said, but the system is gradually being overwhelmed by growth and technological change.
While the commission focused rather narrowly on safety issues, other answers must be found to work out problems in the airline industry. As the Partnership for Improved Air Travel an alliance of business, labor, and public interest organizations pointed out earlier this month, the situation needs to be attacked on many fronts.
The Partnership urged addition of equipment and people, a sweeping modernization of the airspace control system, expansion of existing airports, construction of new airports, and long-range planning for future air traffic control.
All of this will be expensive. Yet it must be done if the American people are going to continue to fly in the numbers they have been a near certainty given the time limitations or availability of train, bus, and auto travel.