Air traffic control: getting there from here safely

THE impression that the Federal Aviation Authority is not playing straight with the American people on the subject of air traffic control refuses to go away. FAA chief Donald Engen, appearing before a House investigations subcomittee this week, played down the importance of a General Accounting Office study of the air traffic control system. He conceded that his agency needs more fully qualified controllers, but said that traffic is being handled safely -- and that ``flow control'' techniques can handle any extraordinary situations.

Rep. James Oberstar (D) of Minnesota, chairman of the subcommittee, was unimpressed. He called the system ``a time bomb ticking away.''

The GAO report said that the FAA had not met its goal of rebuilding the corps of fully qualified air traffic controllers to replace the 11,400 dismissed after they went out on an illegal strike in 1981.

The FAA now has just under 14,000 controllers, compared with 17,300 before the strike. Only about 8,500 of the current corps are ``full performance'' controllers, capable of handling all situations.

Moreover, the controller corps is expected to feel the pinch again soon with the start of a large wave of retirements, including those of some controllers who stayed on to help the system back to its feet after the 1981 strike. Meanwhile, total air traffic is up some 5 percent over pre-strike levels.

The GAO report also recommended that the FAA restrict air traffic in certain areas until the agency has the number of qualified controllers it needs.

Well, better not to fly than to fly unsafely. But the emphasis should surely be on beefing up the corps of controllers. Freedom of movement is absolutely basic, especially in such a huge country as the United States. Everyone suffers when you can't get there from here.

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