Airports, airlines face costly transition as strike drags on

A number of challenges lie ahead for passengers and the airline industry as Washington sets out to rebuild the nation's severely gutted air traffic control system.

Despite the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) confident assurances that ample numbers of substitutes for striking controllers are on deck and that a host of eager recruits await training, there is an undeniable transition period ahead as the past week's emergency situation settles into a routine pattern.

For at least the next month the FAA has frozen flight traffic levels at the nation's 22 busiest airports at 50 percent of the normal flow. Representatives of the airline industry and airport managers are scheduled to meet Aug. 11 with federal transportation officials to take a longer-range look at what is needed and what can be accommodated over the next six months.

The airline industry claims to have lost at least $100 million in revenue over the last week and another $10 million a day in profits. An Air Transport Association spokesman describes the effect as nothing short of "devastating." Braniff International Airlines early last week laid off 1,500 of its executives, while Eastern Airlines has announced that its top executives may begin taking a 10 percent salary cut within the next week. Industry analysts have predicted that the airlines could lose more than $600 million in revenue during Au gust, traditionally one of the airlines' busiest months.

Most airlines plan to drop the least efficient routes and planes first. Discount tickets are expected to become more scarce as planes fly with fuller loads. Airline industry spokesmen concede there may be potential savings in fuel and other areas as their flight schedules become leaner. But for the most part, airlines and airport managers are eager to see normal flight schedules resumed.

"Most of our member airports have been phoning to say how calmly and coolly the system has been operating -- they only wish that more passengers and flights could be handled," says Deborah Lunn, spokeswoman for the Airport Operators Council International Inc.

Though forecasts before the strike long had held that US air traffic would double over the next 20 years, the FAA now has begun to talk about many of the current trims in a "less is more" context, as if they were blessings in disguise. Administrator J. Lynn Helms, for instance, recently suggested that some of the flights now shucked temporarily may yet be dropped on a permanent basis. The entire system, he has said, may end up "requiring" fewer flights and fewer controllers. Indeed, US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis now says that the air traffic system was overstaffed before the strike and could well make do in the end with 3,500 fewer controllers.

But the fact remains that now and for many months to come there will be a decided gap in the force of controllers manning airport towers and regional traffic centers. For substitutes, the FAA has reached out to tap its own 2,500 supervisers, more than 500 Air Force controllers, with 200 more coming aboard this week, and all nonstriking controllers. The FAA also is considering recalling retired controllers and expects to bring in another 1,000 controllers to busy towers and centers from less busy facilities.

Several thousand more applicants for controller jobs stand ready and eager to take training at the FAA's Oklahoma City academy, which will triple its class shifts. But the FAA admits that it will be at least 17 to 21 months before the new recruits are ready to take on a controller's job.

Still, the Professional Air Traffic Control Organization's 12,000 striking members leave a decided gap as they had hoped they would, and passengers are almost sure to experience some added inconveniences in the weeks ahead.

"There will continue to be delays and reductions of traffic," Mr. Farrar concedes.

Transportation Secretary Lewis has opened the door to the rehiring of as many as a few hundred strikers if they can prove that they were harassed into striking by other union members.

But the administration's stance toward the union majority continues tough.

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