WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), citing charts and statistics that he contends show a rapidly shrinking margin of safety in America's skies, says he will push Congress in the next few weeks to establish an independent commission to make an exhaustive review of the Federal Aviation Administration's performance.
The collision of two planes over Southern California last Sunday is "a grim reminder of the declining margin of safety" and underscores the need for an immediate, thorough look at the agency, Byrd said late Friday.
"The worst has happened, as many of us feared, and I am afraid it may happen again," Byrd wrote in responding to questions from The Times.
Byrd's proposal of a blue-ribbon commission to review FAA performance is opposed by both the agency and Reagan Administration officials, but it has gained the support of the Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation and, he said, it has "a very good chance of gaining Senate approval in the next several weeks."
Even before the California accident, Byrd had instructed his staff to analyze FAA statistics on aviation accidents, reports of near-collisions and surface operational errors such as runway near-collisions, and to compare them with air traffic volume. The resulting charts show that "aviation safety incidents" in 1985 occurred twice as often as they did in 1982, he said.
Last year, according to the staff study's findings, one such incident was recorded for every 5,323 departures of commercial air carriers, compared to one for every 12,031 departures in 1982. The study charted one incident for every 6,987 commercial aircraft hours flown in 1985, compared to one for 14,758 hours in 1982. It found one incident for every 2.9 million miles flown by commercial aircraft last year, compared to one in 6 million miles three years ago.
The FAA contends that Byrd's charts are misleading--"very much so," said Stephen D. Hayes, assistant administrator for public affairs--and that referring to actual accident rates would give a more meaningful indication of relative safety.
"Since deregulation in 1978, accident rates in all categories have declined significantly," Hayes said.
Byrd introduced his legislation for an examination of the FAA in May, and the California crash has bolstered its chance of passage, he said.
The bill would direct the President to appoint an independent, seven-member commission to make a yearlong study of questions such as whether the FAA has been given adequate resources to ensure aviation safety, whether it should be an independent agency outside the Transportation Department and whether deregulation of the airlines has adversely affected passenger safety.
Bill Has Many Sponsors
Byrd's proposal recently gained impetus when Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate aviation subcommittee, agreed to join 14 other senators as a co-sponsor of the measure. The subcommittee approved the legislation in late July, and the full committee approved it without objection just before Congress recessed last month.
The measure is headed for the Senate floor, where it must compete for consideration with a host of other issues--including the income tax revision--in the four weeks Congress is expected to be in session. "I intend to push this bill in the remaining days of the legislative session," Byrd said. "The interest in improving aviation safety is there--both within and outside Congress."
The charts Byrd first presented to Kassebaum's subcommittee in July show that the "margin of safety" narrowed between 1975 and 1980, then improved dramatically during the 1981-82 period when the FAA was restricting the volume of air traffic at major airports.
The restrictions followed the firing of most air traffic controllers after they went on strike in 1981. Since 1983, deregulation of the industry has brought increases in the numbers of both airlines and flights, and "the margin of aviation safety has declined significantly," Byrd said.
Skies 'More Crowded'
"Simply put, the problem is that the skies have gotten more crowded since deregulation, and there is no indication that the future will bring less crowded skies," he said.
Byrd said that the charts must be viewed with the caveat that there are "serious limitations in the quality and quantity" of FAA data, but he said the agency too often depends on accident statistics alone in making assessments of safety.
While the FAA says, for instance, that the number of mid-air collisions has remained between 20 and 30 a year for the last decade, Byrd told the subcommittee that this view "ignores any consideration of incidents which did not become accidents."
"It is often only luck that separates incidents and accidents," he said.