Labor strife tests governments in Poland, US; Air controllers and stress: would higher pay, shorter hours help?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Have the nation's air traffic controllers truly been overworked and underpaid , as they contend? And would government concessions improve safety? The questions may seem irrelevant in light of the Reagan administration's move to dismiss striking controllers and jail local union leaders. But Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco) , insists that, regardless of what happens to his union, the issues still must be faced. Controllers of the future are sure to feel just as strongly about them, he says.

Several independent aviation safety experts say they doubt that passenger safety would be greatly improved by government concessions on controller complaints. And most say they are confident that the substitute controller system now in place is operating at safe levels. They say the conservative Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is apt to be too cautious rather than too bold.

The strongest argument striking controllers seem to have going for them -- in terms of netting public support -- is their bid for a lighter work schedule. They want a 32-hour week packaged into four days. Most European countries and neighboring Canada have controller workweeks averaging well under the current 40 -hour requirement in the United States.

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But many safety experts question whether or not a four-day week would really ease the stress.

"I can see varying the schedule of time worked more than anything else -- stress isn't going to be relieved by a three - or four-day day weekend," says Charles Miller, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board's Bureau of Aviation Safety and now an independent Aviation consultant. "Also, stress doesn't affect all controllers in all locations on a day-in, day-out basis. It's only at certain times in certain places. . . . Some of the time they're bored to death."

A recent General Accounting Office report notes that while controllers work a normal eight-hour day, only an average four to five hours of it are spent actually controlling air traffic. Breaks, briefings, and other duties eat up the remainder.

Still, there is considerable sympathy among safety experts for the stress argument.

They point to numerous controller positions authorized, but for budget and turnover reasons never filled. Even before this summer's strike, en-route centers and airport terminals had more than 1,600 professional positions (including controllers, managers, and data processors) authorized but unfilled. An FAA spokesman, however, stresses that there is always a gap in the figures and that with the exception of some airports, such as Chicago's busy O'Hare, staffing generally has been as high as it is "supposed" to be.

Another potential cause of stress is overtime. Last year the average controller worked an extra 17 hours, though the figure shoots higher at busier airports. An FAA spokesman explains that while the agency's policy is not "overtime or else" and is voluntary, there are "certain expectations" that controllers will do the added work.

"The No. 1 issue in my view is the burnout factor," says Con Hitchcock, a former staff member of Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project, who now specializes in transportation issues for the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

"It's a lot different if you're in a pressure cooker like O'Hare's control tower than in Tupelo, Miss. or Islip, N.Y. . . . But an astoundingly high percentage of controllers retire early before the full 30 years is up," says Mr. Hitchcock, who credits the FAA for its work in this regard in trying to rotate employees in various locations. But he suggest that the agency could do a better job in helping controllers move more smoothly into a second career when they finish.

"If there is a weakness in the air control system, it's that we haven't the means, if they exist, to select people who stand up best under stress," suggest Homer Mouden, a former pilot and now vice-president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia-based group that specializes in safety research and workshops. "The airlines have looked at this concept for a long time in selecting pilots. . . . I happen to work best and be most productive under pressure, and I think there are a lot of people like me around."

Some say the roots of the stress problem for controllers lie in longtime FAA management-labor tension. Mr. Miller says that the relationship between the two groups has deteriorated sharply for a variety of reasons, including FAA budget problems and the lack of priority given aviation by the Department of Transportation and Congress.

"I've been talking to a lot of pilots in the last few days," notes John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio, a nonprofit foundation geared to safety improvement by relying on an anonymous safety reporting system. "The majority have told me: 'We don't care if the controllers never come back. . . . We're getting great service and being treated very nicely with no bad mouthing."

In light of how smoothly the air traffic system has been operating this week, Mr. Galipault says he has his doubts that the figures commonly termed adequate for staffing are necessarily on target.

"It raises the question of how many people you really need to do that job. I know of one control tower that would tip over if you put one more person in it," he says. Still, he admits some concern as to how much longer substitute controllers can hold up under the current emergency situation.

Aviation safety experts say they can see how the controllers' bid for a $10, 000 across the board raise might make the job more palatable. But they disagree that it would make the situation any safer for passengers and pilots. The average controller salary is now $32,000, according to a Patco spokesman, and controllers have made no secret of the fact that the model they look is the pilot who averages much more time off and a salary closer to $50,000. Controllers argue they control many more planes than the pilot's one. Pilots are not at all sure the analogy holds.

"The controller job requires training, But it doesn't require the combination of knowledge and judgment and motor skill s that a pilot's does," says former pilot Mouden.

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