WASHINGTON -- More people died worldwide in airplane accidents in 1985 than in any other year .
The Dec. 12 crash of an Arrow Air DC-8 jetliner in Gander, Newfoundland, that killed 256 people brought to 1,946 the number of people dead in major accidents this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization said.
Despite the massive death toll, the international body says when all travel factors, including miles flown and passengers carried, are taken into account, flying was as safe as ever.
Other major tragedies included the Japan Air Lines crash that killed 520 people, the Delta Airlines accident in Dallas with 137 fatalities and the Air India disaster that claimed 329.
Investigations are still in progress to find, if possible, the causes of these accidents. The JAL crash appears linked to explosive decompression at a cracked rear bulkhead that blew off part of the tail. The cracks are believed to stem from repair problems. The Dallas accident is linked to wind shear and sabotage has been mentioned in the Air India disaster over the Atlantic off Ireland.
The National Transportation Safety Board said that through late December 528 people had died in airline accidents involving U.S. carriers -- both saheduled flights and charters. The worst year for the domestic carriers was 1977 when 655 perished, the safety board said.
U.S. airlines set a record for passengers carried -- more than a million a day on domestic and international flights. By the end of the year, they will have transported at least 375 million passengers, up from last year's previous record of 342 million.
But Congressional and other critics charge that the Federal Aviation Administration is not doing all it can in the way of inspection and enforcement to keep the skies safe. FAA chief Donald Engen denies the allegation.
'This year's international accident record will not deter us in reaffirming confidence in aviation,' Engen said. 'Despite the series of prominent incidents that has attracted public attention, we can and will continue the procedures that make aviation the safest means of transportation.'
John O'Brien, director of the engineering and air safety department of the Air Line Pilots Association, emphasized in an interview with United Press International that the overall system is safe. But, he said, the margin of safety has shrunk.
Asked whether there is a common thread in this year's plane crashes, O'Brien said experts have to look deeply into many of the contributing factors to find one.
'Our interpretation of the common factors is that we do not believe the FAA has the resources which will enable it to fulfill its safety mandate,' O'Brien said. 'More specifically, there are not enough FAA inspectors to adequately enforce the regulations,' he said. 'Also ... there are not enough experienced air traffic controllers.'
That view is shared by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of a House investigations and oversight panel on transportation, and a growing number of lawmakers.
Rep. Guy Molinari, R-N.Y., and more than 70 of his House colleagues have signed a letter sent to President Reagan requesting the rehiring of some of the controllers fired in the 1981 strike. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., has introduced a non-binding resolution in the Senate that also calls for the rehiring of some controllers.
In describing air traffic control, Oberstar said recently, 'The system is in trouble.'
Before the August 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the system had nearly 13,400 journeyman controllers and about 3,000 trainees. The FAA earlier this year estimated that there are only about 8,000 experienced controllers.
The agency has embarked on hiring additional air traffic controllers but it will take years to fully train them -- and administration officials have not indicated whether they will change their long-standing policy of rehiring striking controllers.
O'Brien, a prominent safety expert, said one of the problems facing the FAA is that its appropriations have been cut over the past five years.
He said the agency 'does not have the resources' to supervise the airline industry, carry out full inspections and take care of safety research.
The FAA said it is hiring 500 additional inspectors who will look at air carriers and private and corporate planes, bringing their number to about 2,110. In 1978 there were a total 1,580 inspectors, the agency said.
O'Brien said it would be politically impossible for Engen to request from the Reagan administration a large budget increase because of the federal deficit.
The government taxes ea#h plane ticket and every gallon of aviation fuel and the money goes into an aviation trust fund. The fund currently has a $7.3 billion surplus, but the money is being used for general government operations instead of facility and equipment improvements, he said.