Military controllers play crucial role in strike

As the US air traffic control crisis took on an increasingly international dimension yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) urgently requested the assistance of an additional 157 military controllers to maintain the nation's straimed air transport system.

With some of Canada's air traffic controllers refusing to guide US aircraft, Europe-bound flights from the Northeast US were being rerouted south of Canadian air space. But delays of 10 hours or more were reported on both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite the Canadians' boycott, however, some flights between Canada and the US resumed Aug. 11. As the fresh batch of military controllers dispersed to their civilian assignments, overseas sympathy for the striking Americans appeared to be spreading. Australian controllers announced they would boycott US flights, but later dropped this plan in favor of seeking a court injunction to ban departure or arrival of such flights. Spain's controllers decided to refuse clearance to US flights. A boycott by Portuguese controllers is planned for Saturday, and their Dutch counterparts are also contemplating action.

At the moment 660 military controllers are backing up 5,000 nonstriking controllers and 2,400 supervisory staff at many of the nation's airports.

The Air Force has contributed 423 of them; the Army, 160; the Navy, 62; and the Marine Corps, 15. They are assisting in control towers, terminal radar approach control facilities, and air route traffic control centers at 36 airports, including those in Boston, New York, Miami, Denver, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

Six controllers from Dover Air Force Base, Del., home of the 436th Military Airlift Wing, which flies giant C-5A Galaxy transports, are working in the tower at New York's JFK International Airport. Another three from the Delaware base have been assigned to ground radar stations in Washington, D.C.

Observing that "it makes it easier for us," and FAA spokesman explains that some of the uniformed controllers are doing clerical and paper work for their civilian colleagues, such as preparing flight data strips.

Although military air traffic controllers are all FAA trained and certified, like the civilians many are now working with, they did not immediately begin controlling civilian aircraft the moment PATCO struck.

The relief teams spent at least three days and in some cases more than a week acquainting themselves with the equipment they were to operate, besides familiarizing themselves with air corridors and the volume of traffic they would be dealing with."Making the transition was a very simple matter," asserts Technical Sergeant Terry Shay of the Dover, Del., base's public affairs office, adding that military controllers "use the same vernacular as their civilian counterparts."

Sergeant Shay concedes that the men probably experienced anxious moments "before they got their feet on the ground" but stresses that military controllers are extremely versatile, "working in South Korea one year and West Germany the next."

Pointing out that military controllers handle less traffic than civilian ones , observers note that stress and strain on the job is therefore not so much of a problem for them. "Military countrollers seem to fare a little bit better," says an Air Force spokesman. "They don't have the massive volume to deal with."

According to the FAA, airline pilots have no complaints about the military men who are shepherding them to earth. In fact, because they are traimed by the same organization, few can tell them apart, it seems.

The Air Force maintains that the loss of controllers from its various bases is having only a "minimal impact" on operation. Says a spokesman: "There has been some reduction and delay in training flights, but our mission capability has not been hurt to any degree." By one estimate the military could part with 700 controllers before its efficiency would be impaired.

PATCO, understandably is not happy with the influx of military controllers into the civilian system. "They are not as proficient with the system as one would think," says the union's public affairs chief, Marsha Feldman. "I know most civilian controllers come out of the military, but military training is not sufficient for the FAA."

She asserts that former military controllers are obliged to put in four months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Okla., and do not become fully fledged or "journeymen" controllers for between three to five years after they have left the service.

She also says that the military air traffic control system is not computerized like the civilian one and that its operators use "different radars and different radios."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.