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FAA pursues safety aloft

The American flying public should be encouraged by the results thus far of the government's intensive safety inspections of the 355 US airlines. Most of the air carriers met the standards, the FAA says, pronouncing the nation's airline industry ''in very fine shape.'' Millions do fly each year in safety

The 50 air carriers that didn't pass all inspections must correct deficiencies or the FAA will take action: In recent months it grounded three airlines.

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In addition, the FAA says it will conduct in-depth inspections of ''fewer than 20'' airlines, where the most serious deficiencies were found.

What led to this extraordinary set of inspections was the FAA's inspection of Air Illinois following the crash, with fatalities, of one of its planes last October. As the result of the probe the FAA lifted the airline's license. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, the FAA's boss, subsequently ordered that all airlines be checked for strict adherence to safety procedures, including record-keeping. That was the right response to the short-term need.

There is a long-term requirement that must be met, as well. No airline ever again must be permitted to become lax in its safety procedures: Regular FAA inspections may need to be more rigorous than in the past.

One recent problem may have been too much work for too few FAA inspectors: the Reagan administration had trimmed their number from 631 in 1981 to 532 early this year. However, in February Secretary Dole announced that the FAA will begin hiring an additional 178 inspectors, which should help.

The next requirement is to see that each inspector holds the airlines to the highest safety standards, from checks of maintenance records to unannounced inspections of planes and of pilots' performances. The FAA assigns to each airline two principal inspectors, one for operations, the other for maintenance. This has the virtue of providing close knowledge of each airline's systems, personnel, and equipment. But it also has the potential, which needs to be guarded against, for promoting coziness in relationships between inspector and airline.

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