WASHINGTON — Hundreds of proposals for improving aviation safety are languishing in the policy-making bureaucracy at the Federal Aviation Administration, and safety experts say that it appears to take a major accident to spur the agency to act on them.
The slow process of implementing safety rules has frustrated members of Congress and safety officials, who charge that many pending proposals could save lives in airplane crashes. They say that more fatalities may be inevitable before changes are approved.
"We regulate by counting tombstones," said Barry M. Sweedler, director of safety recommendations at the National Transportation Safety Board, which was created by Congress to investigate accidents and monitor federal compliance with safety issues.
In 1986, for example, the NTSB asked the FAA to consider drafting rules to improve access to aircraft emergency exits, a possible factor in some of the deaths in the Feb. 1 collision of two airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport. The FAA finally issued the rules last week, not long after a congressional panel scheduled a hearing on the issue for today.
Last year, the safety board issued a "most-wanted" list of proposed safety regulations in an effort to embarrass the affected agencies into action. Of 18 items on the list, six required action by the FAA, and only one is close to being resolved, Sweedler said.
The recommendations include proposals to improve oversight of airplanes on runways and to provide collision avoidance systems near terminals, on-board systems to warn pilots when they are in danger of flying into the ground and identification of pilots with histories of substance abuse.
Only the last proposal is near resolution. The FAA has issued new rules to identify and ground pilots involved in motor vehicle offenses involving drug or alcohol abuse. Also, the rules spell out the circumstances under which a flight can be canceled if the sobriety of the pilot or crew is in question.
"We are pleased with the positive actions of the FAA on this issue," Sweedler said. "Of course, we've been after them on this matter for quite some time and have been encouraging them to take the steps they've finally agreed to."
However, FAA officials say that implementing safety proposals is a lengthy process and that the government is working with deliberate speed to make the skies safe.
FAA spokesman Fred Farrar said that, although most NTSB suggestions are accepted, some are rejected as impractical or unnecessary. "We aren't bound to accept their recommendations," he said. "Congress didn't give them the authority to compel us to do anything . . . ."
Farrar bristled at the suggestion that it takes tragic accidents to spur the FAA to act on safety issues. "We have a very definite procedure," he said. "It's very time-consuming and very bureaucratic."
Although statistics show that air travel has become safer during the last decade, a rash of recent accidents has heightened public attention and apparently created the impression that the problem has grown worse rather than better.
Indeed, the recent ground collision in Los Angeles as well as another at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the small-aircraft accidents that killed Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) have spurred a frantic series of meetings and hearings aimed at improving aviation safety.
NTSB officials are reluctant to discuss the specific causes of those accidents or any policy changes that might have prevented them. Even so, congressional officials, air industry analysts and safety experts agree that enough alarms were sounded by earlier accident reviews to warrant significant policy changes.
Some suggest that pending safety proposals, such as improved passenger access to over-wing exits and installation of fire-resistant materials in domestic aircraft, might have reduced the fatality count in the recent accidents.
Sweedler said that the deaths in the Los Angeles and Detroit accidents did more in a few macabre moments than years of official meetings to motivate federal officials to get moving on some long-standing safety concerns.
"They are aware of many safety issues that could have saved lives because we brought it to their attention before the accidents occurred," he said.
Lawmakers, responding to escalating public concerns, are rushing to address the issue. For example, after the Los Angeles crash, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who has had little involvement in aviation issues, accused the FAA of risking public safety.
"It is inexcusable and irresponsible for the FAA to fail to act if they have the ability to improve the safety of our commercial airlines," Levine said through a staff member. "How many more needless deaths will it take to make them act?"
Similar outcries are expected when a House Government Operations subcommittee opens hearings on aviation safety today.