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Holding the FAA to account: politics can be a help

MOMENTUM is growing for sending the nation's air safety watchdog, the Federal Aviation Administration, back to ``obedience school'' for a refresher course. The President's Commission on Aviation Safety recently released its recommendations for making the FAA more responsive to air safety issues. Reform legislation kicking around on Capitol Hill was the subject of recent Senate hearings. And the congressional Office of Technology Assessment plans to weigh in next month with its view of how the FAA could do its job more effectively.

We applaud efforts to make the FAA more responsive and more effective at adopting new technologies and strategies for safer air travel.

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But reformers should think twice before following the aviation safety panel's recommendation of making the FAA independent of the Department of Transportation. As many reformers see it, the FAA in general is doing a good job. But they argue that the Transportation Department bureaucracy often interferes with FAA actions, and that the agency is too tightly bound by governmentwide budget, procurement, and personnel policies to do its job quickly and efficiently.

In addition, the FAA has the often conflicting roles of promoting air travel while ensuring its safety. Focusing solely on safety and allowing the FAA to pitch its tents outside the DOT would help eliminate these problems, they say.

We would argue that Congress can deal with the budget, procurement, and personnel problems without a bureaucratic writ of divorce.

Bureaucratic interference cuts both ways: On several occasions the FAA has taken actions to enhance safety precisely because someone higher up in the bureaucracy was leaning on it to act.

It's instructive that the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal panel that investigates aircraft accidents and recommends safety improvements, is on record as opposing the separation for precisely this reason: Any increase in efficiency gained from spinning the FAA off could come at the cost of reduced public accountability.

A broader issue is involved. The DOT was set up in the 1960s to help develop, coordinate, and oversee an integrated, balanced national transportation system. People can argue as to whether such a policy exists or whether the department has fulfilled its role. But the goal is still worthy. To set a precedent for slowly carving up the only department charged with meeting US transportation goals is not in the nation's long-term interest.

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