Air traffic controller problems linger, uncorrected in airport towers across US
Are some of the same workplace problems that more than a year ago led to a nationwide strike and the eventual firing of 11,400 US air traffic controllers surfacing again? Many of the on-the-job frustrations linger and, in fact, may have increased, according to a number of working controllers and several recent independent studies.Skip to next paragraph
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Money was one strike issue. Working conditions and hours were another. Soon controller paychecks will begin to reflect the 6.6 percent salary hike proposed by the President and approved by Congress.
Some controllers insist they do (and must) work 10-hour days and 6-day weeks. ''It's sink or swim - there aren't enough people. . . ,'' one New York controller recently complained to the Ohio-based Aviation Safety Institute. Some who have been carrying heavy loads say the time between breaks can be long, that scheduled time off is sometimes abruptly canceled, and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not been training new recruits as well or as swiftly as predicted.
A group of 14 controllers and one superviser at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport recently tried to press the manpower point by signing a petition urging President Reagan to rehire at least some of the fired controllers.
Some controllers also say that without a union to complain to (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - PATCO - was officially dissolved last summer), the attitude of some FAA supervisers is more highhanded than ever. ''If you can't hack it, quit'' is the message some say they get from their bosses.
''The same problems are still there, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction,'' says John Schmitt, who was president of the PATCO local that represented controllers in the Aurora en-route center near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He says he has since become a commodity trader and would probably not go back unless working conditions improved.
Though much controller complaining goes on quietly, reaching the news media only indirectly, several recent studies confirm the widespread nature of the problem and the importance of a swift effort to correct it.
For instance, a federally appointed team of three management experts which issued the so-called Jones report last March concluded that FAA managers and supervisers tend to be ''insensitive and rigid'' and their style ''autocratic'' in dealing with controllers. Low morale and stress, the report said, remain key problems. Job assessments of both working and striking controllers were found to be markedly similar and largely negative. The report urges a radical effort to improve communications at every level and to take into account the ability to deal well and easily with people in both management training and promotions.
''The situation [for controllers] hasn't gotten any better since the strike, '' insists Dr. David Bowers, a research scientist with the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research and one of the authors of the Jones report. ''If anything, from what I hear, it's grown worse.''
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study last fall said both controller fatigue and workloads should be watched, but pronounced the system ''safe'' as then operated under FAA-imposed traffic limits.
This fall an independent review of that study by veteran NTSB investigator Claude Shonberger charged that the earlier report ''misled'' the public and that the margin of safety in the system has ''greatly deteriorated'' since the strike.
Last month the NTSB launched a long-planned second look at the safety question. Results will probably be announced early next year. Air traffic experts generally hope for more objective and meaningful findings this time. They say the lapse of time, the less emotionally charged public climate, and the fact that controllers are being sent long questionnaires to answer anonymously at home rather than at work bode well for more honest conclusions.
''The board has been monitoring the situation for quite a while, and I think they're going to give it a pretty good look-see,'' notes Mr. Shonberger.