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A WARNING ABOUT RISKY FLIGHTS

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American citizens who planned to fly to or from, say, Belize or Zaire on those countries' airlines but found no flights with U.S. connections now know why:

These and seven other nations lax about aviation safety are banned from operating passenger planes in U.S. skies. What's new is that the U.S. government finally is telling the public about the negligent nine. It's about time.In a laudable departure from the stitched-lips policy of his predecessors, Transportation Secretary Fed-erico Pena has named the countries that fail to meet safety criteria set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The others are the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Ghana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay. Not all of these nations are among the world's most backward; some have had their civil-aeronautics system wracked by political turmoil. No matter: The prudent will avoid flying on their carriers.

Pena's announcement has at least two benefits. First, U.S. citizens flying on the stigmatized airlines outside the United States will now know the dangers. (Sometimes even booking with a reputable airlines is risky, since some of the delinquent countries lack decent air traffic control.) Second, the embarrassment of the ban may goad the countries to upgrade airline safety, which ultimately will save some of their own citizens from a plunging death. Commendably, the FAA is working with foreign governments to help them meet international standards.

The FAA assessment, phase one of a survey of 93 governments, wasn't all negative. Of 30 countries studied, 17, mostly from the Third World, received a clean bill of health. Aircraft from four others may fly into the United States under heightened FAA inspection. The lure of unimpeded trade with this country should also motivate the banned or flagged countries to make the grade.

Most of the credit should go to people and groups outside the government. Bureaucratic reluctance to let the public know the results of the FAA survey broke down before the persistent demands of several air-passenger safety groups and travel magazines.

In any event, officials are right to tell all. For a tragic example of the results of the previous silence, think back to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, when federal authorities declined to apprise doomed passengers of suspected terrorist activity.