WASHINGTON (AP) _ Agreements with airlines to provide free training to Federal Aviation Administration inspectors made it harder for the FAA to punish the carriers for safety violations, the Transportation Department's inspector general contends.

The inspector general sharply criticized the arrangements and asked the FAA to avoid any future deals for free training if they could impede the agency's ability to enforce safety regulations. The FAA agreed to do so.

The report, written by Assistant Inspector General Lawrence Weintrob, said such agreements could prevent the FAA from grounding an aircraft, crew members or carriers ``even if there was a high safety risk.''

``Acceptance of training should not preclude effective oversight and enforcement,'' Weintrob said.

The report didn't link the practice to any accidents, but it did find that one agreement prevented the FAA from acting unilaterally against a violation until its officials and airline executives agreed on how to correct the problem.

Another arrangement prevented an FAA lawyer from imposing penalties on an airline for unsafe practices. The lawyer called the arrangement a ``quid pro quo,'' according to the inspector general's report.

``These agreements tend to preclude effective surveillance and oversight, and significantly diminish FAA's ability to enforce safety regulations,'' the report said.

As of January 1997, there were some 30 cargo and passenger airlines participating in the program. Neither the report nor government officials would identify which airlines had entered into arrangements.

The program in question gives the FAA free training for its inspectors in exchange for allowing airlines to certify their own pilots and flight engineers. But the government sets the training standards for the airlines and periodically checks on their certifications.

The program is one of several that allow the FAA to shift some of its responsibilities to the private sector, thus allowing agency employees to handle more pressing safety issues.

For instance, the FAA certifies private doctors to perform the examinations that some airline employees are required to undergo. In addition, the FAA allows airlines to inspect their own mechanics' work. In both cases, the agency makes random checks to make sure its procedures are being followed.

``It produces a better product and gives the airlines better control over the level of proficiency out there,'' said Albert Prest, vice president of operations for the Air Transport Association, an industry group representing the nation's largest airlines. ``An FAA inspector only has a limited amount of knowledge. He doesn't even have to be qualified on the airplane he's checking.''

Prest said he didn't know about any agreements that prevented the FAA from responding to safety violations. As for the free training, he said it was in everyone's interests to have FAA inspectors experience the airline pilots' training.

``Each airline has a specific training program,'' Prest said. ``If an inspector is assigned to an airline, it is to his benefit to go through the exact same training course that every pilot goes through.''

The inspector general's report was one of several recently that have found lapses in aviation safety and security programs.

In January, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater began a new effort to get airlines and couriers to follow regulations designed to keep bombs and hazardous materials off commercial aircraft. The inspector general and the FAA had found those rules widely ignored at Miami International Airport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In November, the FAA agreed to develop a program for airplane inspectors after an audit found many employees had never taken a training course.

Several reports _ from Congress' General Accounting Office, from the inspector general and from two presidential commissions _ have accused the FAA of moving too slowly to improve the nation's airline security system.