More US air traffic now than before '81 controller strike
The world's busiest airport - Chicago's O'Hare - is about to become even busier. In response to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) willingness to increase the hourly quota of landings and takeoffs from 135 to 155 an hour, many airlines are beefing up their O'Hare schedules starting today.Skip to next paragraph
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United Airlines alone is adding 67 daily flights. ''We've been waiting quite some time to see these restrictions lifted to get fuller use of our planes and crews,'' says United spokesman Joe Hopkins. ''We've felt there's been some discrimination against Chicago in favor of other hub airports. . . . We're playing catch-up.''
Yet nationwide these days there are more landings and takeoffs than there were before the August 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike. There are still some limits on peak-hour traffic at O'Hare and at New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia. But FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman says that except for Los Angeles, where traffic limits remain because of airport construction and the coming Olympics, all restrictions imposed since the strike have been lifted.
By the FAA's own admission, however, the air-traffic control system has not yet fully recovered. Although the agency is now close to its sharply reduced manpower goal of 12,422 controllers to run the system, it must still rely on 5, 000 who are still in training, according to FAA current figures. Seasoned controllers at busy airports have often had to work six-day weeks and take limited vacations. (Many of them want to work overtime, says Mr. Feldman.) And more than 2,274 of these veterans will be eligible for retirement next year, the FAA says.
The shortage of experienced controllers, the steady increase in traffic, and a growing number of reported ''operational errors'' (when planes pass closer than FAA rules allow) are leading to renewed widespread concern over whether or not the margin of safety built into the system is adequate.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which in a report last year urged that traffic be limited until the system is rebuilt and supervisers are back at their original jobs, is currently looking into two near-miss incidents in which heavy controller workloads appear to be a factor. In one incident involving four planes over Pennsylvania May 9, New York controllers reportedly tried eight times without success to get their counterparts in Leesburg, Va., to take over guidance of a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jumbo jet.
For the first three months of this year, by the FAA's own data, there were close to 400 operational errors - more than half the total for all of 1983. The FAA stresses that the increase is a reflection of the computerized ''quality assurance'' program now in most regional centers that detects even the smallest errors. Most of them, the FAA says, are not major.
But Ralph Nader, who founded the Aviation Consumer Action Project, and ACAP executive director Michael Hancock dispatched a letter two weeks ago to US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole suggesting that the ''dramatic'' rise in errors was largely the result of increased traffic. Charging her department with doing ''too much too soon,'' they urged that the decision to lift landings and takeoffs at most airports be reconsidered.
The FAA and Secretary Dole, though still drafting a formal response, have long insisted that the government allows no more traffic into the system than it can safely handle. But Mr. Hancock counters: ''The air-traffic control system is dangerously overburdened. It doesn't have the margin of safety it had before the strike. The FAA should take a step backward.''