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Three major airline crashes this year. Industrywide financial woes. Different safety standards for small planes.

Even a "Saturday Night Live" skit spoofing USAir's ad campaign.

Airline safety is the hottest topic going, and consumers are getting nervous.

That's the view of aviation experts, who are hard-pressed to recall a time when media, government and public scrutiny has been this intense.

"Automatically, people are more concerned about safety after several accidents," said Mike Benson, public affairs officer at the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates crashes. "Yes, there certainly has been a pickup in the number of calls from consumers. They want to be better informed."

Attracting the most attention is USAir in the wake of its Sept. 8 fatal accident outside Pittsburgh, its fifth crash in as many years. Last month, the carrier made the unprecedented move of proclaiming its safety commitment in a $2 million ad campaign (AA, Nov. 28)-a move made to revive passenger bookings.

Commuter planes are also under close watch after the Oct. 31 fatal crash of an American Eagle plane during unfavorable weather conditions. That was followed by an advisory from the International Airline Passengers Association warning people to avoid commuter/regional aircraft with less than 31 seats. American Eagle pilots in Chicago then refused to fly the ATR aircraft, the type that crashed in October, in uncertain weather conditions.

"People are a bit jittery," said Arnold Barnett, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and an aviation safety expert. "The industry needs a long period of no crashes so people will turn to something else."

But the safety issue won't go away for a while. The National Transportation Safety Board on Jan. 23 will begin a public hearing to determine the probable cause for the USAir Flight 427 crash.

For the most part, though, airlines hope the public will retain confidence in the U.S. air transportation industry, generally viewed as the safest in the world. Advance bookings seem to be holding up, and traffic for 1994 will hit a record 500 million passengers on U.S. carriers, up 4% to 5% from last year, according to the Air Transport Association.

It's unclear how regional airline traffic has been affected, but American Eagle has seen a slight decline in business in the Chicago area, said a company spokesman.

American Eagle won't follow USAir's path with an ad campaign to reassure consumers. The regional carrier, owned by American Airlines, has continued to use brochures and direct contact with travel agents to emphasize that it operates by the same safety standards as large carriers, not yet a federal requirement.

But the Federal Aviation Administration said last week it would put regional carriers under the stricter safety rules by the end of next year. The federal agency called the rule-making program "the biggest single improvement" for commuter airlines, but stressed that smaller planes are safe overall.

The Regional Airline Association, representing 74 regional and commuter airlines, is considering hiring its first public relations agency to address a communications strategy-possibly including ads to the travel trade.

"The purpose would be to get real information out to separate myth from the truth," said Debby McElroy, the association's VP.

The industry and federal government should be doing a lot more to ensure safety, said Tom O'Mara, chairman of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.

"An industrywide safety standard for airlines of all sizes is the key and then the regular publication of a safety report card," Mr. O'Mara said.

Unless the public's anxiety about safety keeps them off planes, further safety claims likely won't show up in airline ads.

"To talk about safety in ads is to play Russian roulette," said Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Corp., a Los Angeles public relations and crisis management firm. "No matter how safe an airline is or how much is spent on training or maintenance, anything can happen."

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