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In the air and on the ground, reports of near collisions are rising. FAA attributes increase to better reporting; others say skies are more crowded and point to fewer controllers

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Congressional critics such as James L. Oberstar (D) of Minnesota have said that one way or another the FAA must find a way to take ``strong action'' to deal with its human relations problems. His House Public Works Subcommittee recently issued a devastating report on the subject, charging that ``an autocratic management style still thrives'' within the FAA.

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``We're doing everything that's humanly possible,'' protests FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Traffic Control Norbert Owens. He says the agency is getting professional third-party advice and getting more controller input in agency policy decisions. ``I think we'll see some improvements, but it's not going to be all peaches and cream,'' he adds.

It is the effect controller's problems have on job peformance that most concerns aviation-safety experts.

The National Transportation Safety Board has done two studies on the controller situation in the last four years. ``The biggest problem we've identified so far has been with the continued failure of the FAA to deal effectively with stress,'' says NTSB chairman James E. Burnett Jr. ``In some cases controllers have just become overloaded,'' adds NTSB operations expert David R. Kelley.

Well over two-thirds of those radar controllers responding to a General Accounting Office (GAO) survey to be released early in 1986 say they must handle more traffic in daily peak periods than they should. Most say the result adversely affects the safety of the system.

The NTSB has been particularly concerned recently about the number of near collisions at airports. In preparing a special report for release in early 1986, the board has found a pattern of a lack of coordination among controllers who sometimes direct traffic along the same runway. In some cases busy controllers have forgotten instructions given and pilots have failed to hear or follow instructions correctly. Sometimes pilots have read back the wrong instructions and controllers have failed to catch the mistake. ``We're not paying the attention we should be to that readback,'' confirms the FAA's Mr. Owens.

The FAA has taken steps in recent months to try to cope with the near-collision problem at airports. Last summer FAA head Donald Engen made conference telephone calls to agency employees at more than 400 airport towers to urge them to improve and formalize coordination between local controllers who clear planes to land and take off and ground controllers who give taxiing instructions.

Most en route and airport control facilities are now equipped with a ground-based automated conflict alert system to warn controllers when an air collision may be imminent.

Pilots and the NTSB have been pushing for a similar warning device in the cockpit since the 1960s. They charge the FAA has dragged its feet in introducing this traffic alert/collision avoidance system (TCAS). The device has improved to the point that it gives pilots specific horizontal and vertical escape directions.

Though the FAA endorsed the idea in 1981, it is likely to be late in the decade before any airlines adopt it. ``Somebody needs to stand up and say we need it right now,'' insists Air Line Pilots Association president Henry Duffy. But despite NTSB urging, the FAA has no plans to make the TCAS system mandatory. Third of five articles. Tomorrow: Is the FAA doing enough?