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Air traffic controller problems linger, uncorrected in airport towers across US

(Page 2 of 2)

The FAA readily acknowledges that labor relations and employee morale within its ranks could be better. But it also contends the situation is not so bad as a few disgruntled employees have been trying to paint it. Conceding that some controllers, for instance, work six-day weeks in busier airports, Administrator J. Lynn Helms insists the average controller workweek is closer to 44 hours, including overtime.

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Since the controller work force is down to a little more than 9,000 from its prestrike high of 17,500, the FAA is running double sessions at its Oklahoma City training facility and maintains it is graduating new recruits as quickly as they qualify. A federal grand jury has been investigating charges that some failing candidates were passed to speed up the process.

To keep the traffic load for each controller at a reasonable level, the FAA controls the flow of air traffic and has kept total flights at 85 to 90 percent of prestrike levels.

''I do feel these controllers have worked very hard, and I hope they can get some relief,'' observes Chicago-based TWA pilot Jerry Lawler, who says he rarely encounters any noticeable aggravation or irritation in his dealings with controllers. ''But it's fairly difficult for those actually controlling the planes to get overloaded when they don't have that much traffic.''

Though the FAA considers money the prime cause of the controller strike, the agency has deferred to its critics to some degree by making a few management changes. A human-relations specialist has been hired in each FAA region and advisory committees, to improve communication and receive employee suggestions, have been set up at each control facility. The FAA, which has also published a new manual on employee rights, says it will try to pay more attention to human-relations ability in promotions. Air traffic managers at every level now take two weeks of specialized training in human relations at the agency's Lawton , Okla., facility.

But some FAA critics insist all this apparent activity amounts to more hustle and bustle than substance.

''Sooner or later the FAA is going to have to recognize that it has a serious problem and face up to the need for some radical operational changes,'' Dr. Bowers insists. ''I wouldn't knock the management training school, for instance, but taking people off site for a couple weeks of training doesn't change anything if they go back to the same situation.''

''You can't really address a problem if you don't admit it exists,'' concurs Matthew Finucane, executive director of Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project. ''We understand the FAA to say it doesn't have a fatigue, stress, or overwork problem - they seem to be stonewalling that whole issue. . . . It's a paradoxical situation because if they acknowledge the problem, it means admitting they may have made a mistake in not bringing back some of the [fired] controllers.''

William Taylor, a spokesman for the four-month-old US Air Traffic Controller Organization (USATCO), a nonprofit corporation that welcomes any past or present controllers as members, reasons that the FAA may yet be forced to take back some of the fired controllers in spite of the administration's clear opposition. He says that 10,900 of those fired are appealing the decision on procedural and lack-of-evidence grounds with the Merit System Protection Board. The hearings on those cases will end this year, and the board has promised decisions by February. Mr. Taylor estimates that 1,000 to 3,000 cases will be successful and that those controllers, once federal appeals are exhausted, will be reinstated in their old jobs, with back pay.

''We feel that rehiring is the most effective immediate solution to the air traffic system's problems . . . and we're the only organization trying - and making progress - to resolve the impasse and break down the barriers between working and former controllers,'' he says. As yet, however, only about 25 of the 1,450 USATCO members are working controllers.