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AIRLINES SHOULD TURN ATTENTION TO SAFETY, ACCIDENT PREVENTION

THE RECENT CRASH of a ValuJetDC-9 in the Everglades is raising questions about safety precautions taken by new airlines entering the fierce competition of commercial aviation.

A Federal Aviation Administration memo revealed that ValuJet planes had previously experienced serious mishaps, including an engine fire last year that burst into the passenger cabin on a runway in Atlanta.ValuJet's compliance with FAA regulations will be part of the National Transportation Safety Board's report when it finishes its investigation of the Florida crash.

But the safety board is limited when it conducts its otherwise thorough investigations. It creates groups to report on everything from pilot performance to pos-sible witnesses. But there is no "accident prevention management" investigation group.

If we are to prevent accidents, more is needed: In the ValuJet investigation, the board should also report on the airline's own accident-prevention policies, if any. This would provide valuable lessons to other carriers, especially those facing rapidly expanding operations.

At the same time, the FAA should require accident-prevention programs - safety systems that go beyond the agency's minimal requirements - at each airline.

These would be tailored by the carriers themselves, with the involvement of top managers, and should involve everything from a unified accident prevention plan to specific polices - say, takeoff and landing rules that go beyond the visibility-ceiling requirements of the FAA.

The FAA took a small step in this direction in January when it required each airline to name a safety director. But the agency did not define the qualifications of this person or identify such a director's tasks.

It is unfortunate that the FAA has seldom, if ever, viewed safety within an airline as requiring an accident prevention program specifically designed for that carrier.

Yet the elements of successful programs - in the literature for decades - have been used by successful airlines with good safety records throughout the world.

The ValuJet crash calls out for the board to investigate the safety-program issue, regardless of what the aircraft fragments reveal about the crash.

The public deserves to know the management story associated with Flight 592's tragic fate.