The friendly skies may not be as safe as you think.

Statistics show that air travel, despite several high-profile crashes in recent years, is still the safest way to get from one place to another. Per mile traveled, you're still safer in a commercial airplane than in the family station wagon.But the computer networks and other infrastructure in place to keep pilots and passengers safe are aging and in dire need of an upgrade. Even more worrisome, however, is the vulnerability of these networks to computer piracy.

Hackers are a well-known danger to any organization that uses computers. But a hacker breaking into the Internal Revenue Service, for example, can do no worse than ruin your credit rating or create other privacy hassles; destructive, no doubt. But if the wrong person breaks into the computers at the Federal Aviation Administration, the damage could be measured in human lives.

Nevertheless, recent reports and interviews with officials close to the problem suggest that FAA honchos have long ignored serious security weaknesses in air-traffic-control computer systems. These weaknesses, experts say, could easily be exploited by a skilled hacker or even a disgruntled agency worker intent on taking revenge.

"Failure to adequately protect these systems," reports Gene Dodaro of the General Accounting Office, "could cause nationwide disruptions of air traffic or even loss of life due to collisions."

FAA spokesman William Shumann shrugged off the threat of attack as "little more than vandalism" and claims that hackers could conceivably cause flight delays but not accidents. "We think (the GAO testimony) is exaggerated," he told our associate Aaron Karp. "We dispute that midair collisions are likely to occur."

What worries us even more than the security weaknesses is Shumann's explanation as to why there's no need to worry. The FAA claims that its computers are so old and out-of-date that most modern-day computer whizzes won't be able to figure them out.

The agency's assurances might carry more weight if it wasn't also plagued by security concerns of a far simpler nature. Says the GAO's Dodaro: "We found that FAA was not effectively managing physical security at air-traffic control facilities. Known weaknesses exist at many facilities."

Shumann says the FAA is in the midst of a "multi-year effort" to beef up security, and a "complete analysis" of security deficiencies at air-traffic control centers will be completed by August.

The FAA's message to concerned flyers: Don't worry, be happy.

Somehow we're not reassured.

Editorial note - The interminable length of Ken Starr's Whitewater probe has prompted many analysts to call for the abolition of all independent counsels. There are too many investigations, and they're costing too much money, the critics say. Hogwash.

The critics forget why the statute was enacted in the first place: because the attorney general and the Justice Department have a built-in conflict of interest when it comes to investigating other high government officials, especially the president.

Sure, there'd be fewer cabinet officials in trouble if we abolished independent counsels. There would also be fewer felons crowding our jails if we stopped investigating murder.