Why US air controllers may strike; Slowdown at Chicago's O'Hare hints at unrest

Was the recent traffic slowdown at busy O'Hare International Airport simply the dress rehearsal for a full-fledged strike early next year of the nation's air traffic controllers?

Federal Aviation Administration officials say they are convinced of it. FAA chief Langhorne Bond terms it "common knowledge" that controllers plan a walkout.

"There are all kinds of clear indications that they are planning a strike," agrees FAA spokesman Jerry Lavey, who notes that some controllers on the West Coast have been seen wearing T-shirts reading "One in '81."

Yet the controllers, whose three-year contract expires March 15, are federal employees and, as such, cannot legally strike or stage a slowdown. Asked specifically about the prospects for a strike, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization aviation safety director Mike Simons says simply: "We're not planning one." But PATCO president Robert Poli has said in the past that he considers slowdowns justified at times and that "the only illegal strike is one that fails."

As evidence for its claim that a PATCO job action is in the works, the FAA cites controller tipoffs to reporters of computer failures and resulting airplaine near-misses, existence of a new PATCO reserve fund, and circulation among controllers of a detailed strike plan.

A few controllers admit alerting reporters to computer failures as one way of shoring up public support for their assertion that the present computer system for tracking planes in most controller facilities is inadequate and out of date. But they say their fund is only for emergencies and that the so-called strike plan document is strictly "educational" -- for use only if Congress should ever change the existing law barring strikes. PATCO, which wants the right to strike and negotiate on wages and working conditions, would loke to see the FAA become a semi-independent agency like the US Postal Service.

PATCO officially denies that controllers staged an intentional slowdown Aug. 15 at O'Hare, the world's busiest airport. It was a day when 600 flights faced major delays -- some as long as five or six hours. An extra $1 million in fuel, by the FAA's count, was spent in the wait.

Richard Scholz, president of PATCO's O'Hare chapter, says the delays were due only to windy conditions, runway construction, and short staffing. Yet, in an angry letter to FAA authorities sent only two weeks before, Mr. Scholz had complained that O'Hare controllers had "had it" with six-day workweeks and were demanding a $7,500 tax-free bonus and equal pay for those in the radar room and the control tower.

In most airports, controllers in radar and control rooms rotate jobs; at O'Hare the jobs are separate. And O'Hare radar room controllers are paid as much as $10,000 a year more than tower workers. Mr. Scholz' letter suggested that controllers at O'Hare might "withdraw their enthusiam" if the "nonnegotiable" demands were not met in 10 days' time.

In years past air traffic controllers have effectively slowed plane traffic at various airports to win improvements in every area from added staffing to better pay.

But, as a rule they tend to get more public support for their cause when they focus on safety issues rather than on pay levels. Salaries tend to be good, ranging from $14,000 for beginners, who need no more than a high-school education, to $45,000 for advanced journeymen in the busiest facilities. With overtime, many controllers can add as much as $10,000 to their pay. But PATCO president Poli has complained that the pay is not much compared with that of pilots who, he says, work only 80 hours a month.

In general, PATCO officials say controller facilities are understaffed and employees overworked. At O'Hare, they say that many of the controller positions actually are filled by trainees and that many authorized positions are vacant. All this bears directly on passenger safety, they say.

"The only measure of workload is how many aircraft are handled within a given time," explains John Paolino, PATCO vice-president for the Great Lakes region. He notes that while the FAA lists 60 arrivals an hour as the standard acceptance rate, the average rate at O'Hare has been 74 an hour and on one recent day was up to 97 between 5 p,m. and 6 p.m.

FAA officials say they consider staffing levels adequate and overtime not extensive at most air traffic facilities. While admitting that O'Hare could use more manpower, FAA administrator Bond denies that the irport's sepcial recruting problems pose any particular safety hazard.

Still, the FAA is taking the strike threat seriously. Officials there say they have a copy in hand of the PATCO strike plan. "It looks like a lot more than an educational document to us," insists FAA spokesman Lavey. Accordingly, the FAA is readying contingency plans that call for a sharp cutback in general aviation (private plane) traffic at most large airports, a possible halt in military training flights, and a deep cut in the number of commercial flights. Short regional flights would be the first to go.

A crew of 1,800 FAA controller supervisors would try to fill in for the present staff of 17,000 contollers. While the FAA does not expect all controllers to join in a strike, even if one is called, agency officials admit there is some worry that militant union members might harass the others and possibly sabotage FAA radar and computer aids.

Whatever the merits of PATCO's pleas, they are unlikely to win public support for their cause through a job action.

"I don't have much too much sympathy for the extent to which controllers are pushing this," observes Chuck Miller, an aviation safety consultant who has spent considerable time talking with controllers. "When you join federal service, it goes with the territory that you don't strike. And if you don't like it, you get out."

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