"The Federal Aviation Administration does not routinely monitor airlines to see if they are complying with special air-safety rules."

That admission came during recent testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board which has been investigating a United Airlines incident on Feb. 24 in which a cargo door on a Boeing 747 jet tore off in flight, causing nine passengers to be sucked out of the aircraft over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.Robert Sanchez, the FAA's primary maintenance inspector for United Airlines aircraft, told NTSB officials that he has just six inspectors to handle United's fleet of 400 aircraft. The net effect is that the over-taxed inspectors often must rely on the "honor" of the airlines in policing the FAA's air-travel-safety system.

Sanchez said he was not aware that the suspect door's locking mechanism had not been inspected as ordered by the FAA following a March 1987 incident over England. He said he was notified after the February incident of the discrepancy by United officials who said that order was inadvertently left off maintenance instructions given to the airline's maintenance crews because of a clerical error.

These disclosures are startling, but probably should not come as a surprise in light of the growing number of mechanical failures plaguing U.S. airlines in recent months. The air worthiness of the nation's aging airliner fleet is of paramount concern given the almost daily reports of lost motors, torn sheet metal, lost doors and fuselage cracks.

Why are inspection crews, the front line of the safety program, so grossly understaffed? That is the nagging question that must be answered.

One FAA inspector said he spends less than 30 percent of his time physically inspecting planes in the field. That should be unacceptable.

While airlines can rightfully boast of an admirable safety record, considering the inherent dangers of air flight and the millions of miles traveled and millions of passengers safely delivered, the potential for disaster is very high.

Aircraft safety must be a paramount concern for all involved with the industry, from the aircraft manufacturer to the airline company to those charged with inspecting and determining air worthiness--the FAA inspectors.

Although the exact cause of the February tragedy has not been determined, the facts concerning inspection shortcomings revealed during the NTSB hearings should be sufficient to spur government action to beef up the FAA's inspection program and serve warning to airline companies that so called "clerical errors" cannot and do not justify inadequate maintenance and inspection programs.