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Stirrings at the FAA

April 19, 1998

When it was recommended recently that the Federal Aviation Administration order the inspection of fuel sensor wiring on 650 Boeing-built 747-model wide-body jets as soon as possible, the response was tepid. The FAA said that it would study the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation and then probably issue an order sometime this spring. That recommendation came out of the safety board's continuing investigation of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which killed 230 passengers and crew members.

The board said there was no imminent danger of a similar midair explosion but its work had turned up "unsafe conditions" that might exist in the three oldest models of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. That seemed reason enough for fast action by the FAA.

Now, having been chided once again for its ponderous ways, the FAA has begun to pick up a little speed. On Thursday, for example, the FAA proposed the overhaul of wiring on the most widely used passenger jet in the world, the Boeing 737, because information growing out of the Flight 800 crash and a somewhat similar accident has raised doubts about the safety of the 737's fuel monitoring system.

The FAA proposal was announced on the heels of a press conference last week by Vice President Al Gore, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and FAA Administrator Jane Garvey that stressed that the agency would push its own safety agenda to reduce the chance of accidents, rather than merely react to air disasters after the fact.

It all sounds good on paper: requiring airlines to perform more rigorous checks on critical engine parts; requiring that nearly all commercial aircraft be fitted with a safety system that would warn pilots when they were flying too low; an airline industry effort to work with the FAA in cracking down on unruly passengers and stressing the need to wear seat belts throughout flights.

The FAA must stay on this course and not fall back into its bureaucratic mode.

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