New York — Safety -- always of paramount concern in aviation under any circumstances -- will continue to occupy the spotlight as the number of air traffic controllers on duty remains reduced.
Spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and independent aviation industry specialists such as Ken Newstrom of the University of Ohio's department of aviation, say that FAA's controllers' strike contingency plan is adequate to ensure maximum safety for airline passengers.
But FAA officials concede that there is no fast way to train replacement controllers. Upon completing the FAA's 20-week training program, new controllers must spend an additional 1 1/2 to 2 years working with experienced controllers before being fully certified. And Mr. Newstrom and others say the FAA is even now not enforcing the letter of its own contingency plan.
As of Aug. 5, the FAA had instructed 22 of the nation's busiest airports that they could operate safely and efficiently at 50 percent of normal traffic levels. However, by its own admission the FAA says that these airports actually are operating at 72.5 percent capacity. Earlier, the FAA had been expected to permit these specific airports to operate at 75 percent capacity. FAA spokesman Jerry Lavey says, "Some people have been urging us to go to 75 percent. We don't want to do that. We want to take evey possible step to ensure maximum safety."
While the FAA for a time may be allowing airports to operate at higher traffic levels than -- in the words of one FAA official -- "it is comfortable with," the agency has refused to officially sanction these levels.
Despite the absence of about 70 percent of the controllers who normally man control towers and air traffic control centers across the country, supervisory personnel and military controllers appear to be keeping a tight cap on safety problems, a wide range of experts feel.
Safety experts are "not quite so worried about individual isolated incidents [of safety problems] as they are about a trend or pattern," notes Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) spokesman John Mazor, who added that no pattern has yet developed.
Both the ALPA and the FAA are investigating a "near miss" involving two jetliners, which took place Aug. 3 near New york City. While some controllers here claim this was the result of too few controllers on duty, an FAA spokesman said the incident was unrelated to the strike.
Nevertheless, many safety experts are very concerned that the FAA may be trying to handle too much traffic in an effort to "show" the public and striking controllers that the government is capable of keeping the nation's air traffic moving despite the walkout.
Meanwhile, other steps are being taken to ensure safety. They include:
* The FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, the only facility in the nation that trains civilian air traffic controllers, may go on "double shifts" in an attempt to train and certify controllers faster, FAA officials say. This could bring the total number of new trainees per year somewhat over 2,000.
FAA supervisory personnel now are training many of the approximately 750 military controllers that have been put on standby to aid supervisors and nonstriking controllers guide civi lian aircraft.