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Each day this nation's airlines include among its passengers 5,000 to 10,000 infants - none of them in child safety seats.

This despite the fact that adults must be strapped into their airline seats and all states require safety seats for infants in automobiles.If it makes sense for everyone to buckle up at 50 miles an hour, surely it's advisable to require safety seats for infants traveling 550 miles an hour, too. But just try telling that to the Federal Aviation Administration.

To it's credit, that's precisely what the National Transportation Safety Board is seeking to do. After holding hearings this week on the USAir crash last July at Charlotte, N.C., the NTSB is trying to breathe new life into its previous recommendation that child safety seats be required on aircraft.

But the safety board is limited to giving advice. Only the FAA can impose such a rule. Yet the FAA keeps turning a deaf ear, insisting that the proposed requirement would cost too much and could prompt travelers with children to abandon planes in favor of highway travel, where the fatality rate is worse than it is in the skies.

What nonsense!

The airline industry, which would foot the bill, favors the proposed requirement. So does the main flight attendants' union.

It's hard to believe that many passengers would prefer to save a few dollars and waste more time on the road rather than putting their children's safety first.

If the FAA won't make child safety seats mandatory aloft, at least it should rewrite the regulations so that individual airlines may voluntarily make flying safer for infants.

The way to do that should become clearer once the FAA issues a report next month on research into how various kinds of infant safety seats perform in airplane crashes.

Once those findings are in, the FAA should let the airlines compete to see which can offer not only the best service and fares but also the safest flights for all their passengers, including the very youngest.