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How air safety may be linked to airline ledgers

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Most airplane crash investigations focus on the physical aspects of what went wrong with the plane and why.

But some aviation safety experts insist that no investigation in the 1980s can afford to ignore airline financial problems.

These, they claim, can have a subtle but significant effect in adding to pressure on pilots to hew closely to schedules, regardless of weather. The experts say that pressure on airlines to make economic shortcuts can jeopardize passenger safety. And both the recession and Washington's recent efforts to deregulate air fares and routes have heightened airline financial difficulties.

''I'm convinced that if you subject airlines to economic pressures, there is going to be more chance-taking,'' says Chuck Miller, an independent aviation safety consultant and former safety official with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, says there is evidence, such as the layoff of a number of airline mechanics, that deregulation pressures may directly affect airline upkeep. His Ohio organization, which welcomes the anonymous reporting of aviation hazards by both controllers and pilots, says that one pilot recently reported taking off with a plane that had more than a dozen deferred maintenance needs. Mr. Galipault says he has also had reports that one airline fleet has 350 maintenance items on ''hold,'' involving more than 30 aircraft.

The playback quality on cockpit sound and flight data recorders in the recent 727 crash in Kenner, La., has been so poor that the NTSB has asked the FAA to require airlines to install more sophisicated equipment in all planes within the next two years. The NTSB has been having budget problems as well and may have to defer hearings on the crash until its new fiscal year Oct. 1.

FAA safety standards have not been relaxed in Washington's general ease-up on regulations. But that does not mean there is no temptation to cut corners, some safety experts say. They cite the NTSB's own study of commuter airline safety as an example.

While the board concluded that any compromising of safety to raise profits is rare among commuter lines, it declared that there is a direct relationship between the airlines' financial status and safety.

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