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How airlines can regain safety margin

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Can the so-called extra margin of safety in commercial airline maintenance that existed in pre-regulation days be restored? Yes, the experts say. But only through:

More Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors. Critics say that until the number climbs to pre-deregulation levels, the quality of maintenance will be difficult to measure.

Better trained, more experienced FAA inspectors. The General Accounting Office says that by 1988 some 40 percent of the inspector force will have less than three years' experience.

Closer enforcement of existing regulations. A number of lesser regulations, not considered safety related, have apparently not been enforced in jet engine repair shops, and perhaps elsewhere.

Education of airlines. The industry is expected to make improved maintenance a priority in response to closer enforcement of regulations, fines, and seminars.

Self-policing. Current programs designed to help an airline keep an eye on its own maintenance capabilities are being reemphasized.

Competition has pressured airlines to cut expenses in all areas. It has pushed down the share of revenues spent on maintenance since deregulation. Poor record keeping exists within maintenance programs even at some larger, better-managed airlines.

How can maintenance procedures and inspection programs be tightened?

``It simply demands more [FAA] oversight,'' says Edward Wood, director of engineering at the Flight Safety Foundation. Mr. Wood believes there will be a window of vulnerability in maintenance until the FAA can add enough trained inspectors.

The biggest key to better maintenance, most experts agree, is forcing airlines to pursue maintenance programs as vigorously as they do profits. The way to accomplish that, they say, is through tougher enforcement of existing regulations -- and education.

Strong enforcement of rules will be possible only as the FAA makes a planned increase of 700 inspectors during the next three years. Training, qualifications, and experience levels will be a problem for some time.

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