Washington — As the nation's airways and airports reach traffic saturation, Washington will be forced to set tighter limits on their use. So says Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Donald D. Engen. Air travel, he observes, has become the mass transit of the 1980s: ``Our airports now are like the bus terminals were in the 1950s.''
Mr. Engen insists recent increases in air traffic are being accommodated safely. He sees no need to impose further limits now: ``I'm not going to restrain air traffic until safety is an issue.'' He notes that the planned modernization of the air-traffic control system now under way will be a significant help.
But the airways are likely to face a new traffic crunch in the 1990s or later, he says, just as they have every decade. Traditionally, as volume increases, the air-traffic control system is upgraded until an increase in flights once again outgrows it.
``Eventually, the skies will fill up, and you'll need to put people into more of a controlled mode,'' concedes the FAA administrator. ``Down the road, speaking philosophically, I see the pressure coming on general aviation to fit into the mold more and more. It's inevitable.''
The first ``pressure points'' on private pilots, he says, are likely to come in required flight plans, transponders (aircraft identification beacons), and two-way radios. Today the skies are virtually open to anyone to fly from one point to another in the United States, without such limits.
To ease congestion at larger airports, says Engen, smaller airports reasonably close to large cities must be developed. And general-aviation pilots should be encouraged to use them.
``All this is evolutionary,'' he says, ``but the warning signals are there.''
As a former US Navy test pilot, an experienced aircraft plant manager, and one-time member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Engen says he feels well suited for the job he has held for the last year and a half. ``I'm a round peg in a round hole -- I know what's going on.''
Surrounded in his office by photos and drawings of everything from personnel aboard an aircraft carrier to Orville Wright's first test flight at Fort Myer, Va., retired Admiral Engen admits he's enjoying the challenge of his work. ``But I'm not having fun,'' he adds quickly.
Indeed, to be at the FAA helm these days is to get a certain amount of heat from the agency's many critics. Engen has personally managed to avoid much of it. Many aviation-safety experts outside the government credit him with making a fair number of safety strides and applaud his decision to have the agency's office of aviation safety report directly to him.
``The safety buck stops with me,'' insists Engen at several points during the conversation.
The most perplexing problem the FAA faces, he says, is the difficulty of looking in-depth into the internal workings of an airline to be sure maintenance practices ``are as good as they should be.'' But he sees the FAA's temporary or permanent grounding of 52 airlines since he took office as proof that the agency is handling that task successfully.
Timing and scope of inspections vary: ``We keep people off balance. I don't want my inspectors to feel comfortable, and I don't want the companies to feel comfortable.''
An airline with economic problems or any other weakness is likely to be inspected more frequently, he says. ``We won't allow people to cut corners. ... The most reprehensible thing I can think of is falsifying records. If we find an airline has done that, we step down hard and we step down quickly.''
Engen says he found it much easier to be an outside critic of the FAA than to be the man with the responsibility to see that any action taken is proper. The FAA must delve into the technical details of any rule it orders, he says, and make sure it is economically feasible.
``I can't afford to let your airline ticket go up 100 percent,'' he says. ``If we were to make snap decisions without fully considering the economic impact the industry could be brought to its knees by a bunch of bureaucrats. ... You're always faced with how much safety is enough. ... What can we afford to do. What can't we afford to do?''
Engen says he feels the FAA has made considerable progress recently in the area of improving cabin safety. But he admits he's been somewhat impatient with the agency's lack of speed in making a sophisticated collision-avoidance system available for airliner cockpits. But he insists: ``We're going to have it'' and says making such a recommendation mandatory is not necessary. ``I find the airlines wanting this -- not fighting it.''
But it is in the people area of FAA management, a frequent target of the agency's air traffic controllers, where Engen feels he is making some of his strongest contributions for the future. ``If I leave any mark on the FAA,'' he concludes, ``it's going to be my desire to be sure that our human resources management is the best there is.''
To ease controller overtime in some FAA en route centers and to balance the oversupply of qualfied controllers in some airport control towers, the FAA is trying to encourage a number of personnel transfers. It is a far from easy task, says the FAA chief.
Regarding controller complaints that they go not feel they are being listened to by management and that many of their supervisers are too authoritarian, Engen says he and his colleagues are trying to change both FAA promotion policies and management attitudes.
``You cannot autocratically lead people,'' he insists.``The military, where I've spent the better part of my life, learned that a long time ago. You have to exercise restraint and good judgment....
``Now we're picking supervisers for their communications skills [rather than just technical competence], and we're trying to change attitudes of our managers to ensure that we are reasonable in our style and technique.
``It's something we've set in motion, but it's going to take years to do.''