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Air Safety Over Politics

There’s no evidence thus far that Monday’s crash of an American Airlines Airbus A-300 jet in New York, killing all 255 people on board, was anything but an accident. Nevertheless, the crash of the twin-engine jet into a beachfront neighborhood in Queens was--inevitably--associated in Americans’ minds with the terrorist aircraft attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11.

It can’t help that when Americans got the horrible news Monday morning, air safety had become a political punching bag. Washington has spent the last two months either bickering or dithering about national air safety. More than the federal government, the airlines continue to control the agenda for what are acceptable standards for safety.

To restore Americans’ faith in flying, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and his boss, President Bush, must sharply depart from a federal history of bowing to the airlines, which have resisted close oversight. Yes, better security costs money and passengers would pay for it. But there’s no rational other side to the argument.

Although Mineta recently announced “zero tolerance” for lax security, that means little without the concrete, mandatory and swift reforms in a bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that the Senate passed 100 to 0 last month. House-Senate conferees are now trying to reconcile the Hutchison bill with a lax measure, recently passed in the House, that would leave security in the hands of private companies hired by cost-conscious airlines.

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Bush has said he is open to compromise, but the House version is full of loopholes. The Senate version should rule. It imposes concrete solutions like requiring that airports screen all checked baggage and put in stringent controls to stop unauthorized people from acquiring airport staff ID cards. Currently, airports need not tell the Federal Aviation Administration about missing security badges until more than 5% of them are unaccounted for. Only one of every 20 checked bags on domestic flights is screened for explosives. While Europe is nearing 100% screening of baggage without causing significant delays or price increases, the FAA’s target date for that is 2014.

Washington will also have to be more assertive about overseeing aircraft maintenance and repairs. Currently, federal regulations place the burden on airlines to oversee maintenance. Airlines, to save time and money, have increasingly out-sourced maintenance work to independent repair stations. In recent years, mechanics and pilots have complained that such facilities are substandard. Slack maintenance, for instance, was cited in the crash of an Alaska Airlines jet off the Southern California coast last year.

Regardless of the cause of Monday’s crash, the tragedy should remind federal leaders of the urgent need to close holes in aviation safety. Americans--especially the “New York people [who] have suffered mightily

Over the years, flying has proven safer than driving per mile traveled, especially for long trips. But it’s reasonable to demand that the federal government do more to both prevent accidents and protect passengers from terrorism. Washington so far has not met that high obligation.

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