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A fix for the FAA's turbulence

Mass flight cancellations like American's can be avoided under a new system of trust.

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The Reagan axiom of "trust but verify" (about missile deals with the Soviet Union) could just as well apply to US airlines. To ensure safe flying, regulators trust the industry to see its own interest in maintaining aircraft. Then government's job is to verify. Simple, right? Yes, but in practice the balance remains difficult.

The flying public was whipsawed last week by a sudden lack of balance in that government-industry duet when the country's largest domestic carrier, American Airlines, was forced to cancel 3,300 flights on its MD-80 jetliners, leaving nearly 300,000 passengers stranded.

That mass grounding, and other airline woes such as a string of bankruptcies and fare hikes caused by high fuel prices, hint at an industry sending out an SOS.

Like other airlines, American got caught in an unexpected audit of safety compliance by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was forced to ground its MD-80 fleet to readjust wires that were too close together under the FAA's newly stiffened zero-tolerance for any infraction, although no immediate safety issue was suggested. The FAA's crackdown came after the agency itself was embarrassed a few weeks ago with news that one of its supervisors had let Southwest Airlines fly 46 airplanes with maintenance issues in 2007.

The leniency with Southwest reveals that the FAA needs to find a happy medium between "by the book" enforcement and working with airlines to help them expose safety abuses and correct them in a spirit of cooperation.

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