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