A new look at safety issues raised by strike

As transatlantic air service edges back toward normal following the end of a two-day boycott of US flights by Canadian air controllers, the safety questions highlighted by that short-lived protest are receiving renewed attention.

The Canadian controllers had argued that US air space was unsafe under the temporary staffing system set up by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deal with the strike by US controllers. Their action was also widely seen as a show of solidarity with striking American colleagues, at least 10,323 of whom have now been officially fired by the Reagan administration.

A deciding factor in restoring normal service to the crucial Gander, Newfoundland, air control center, was the Canadian government's agreement to set up fact-finding teams to probe the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association's allegations about safety hazards in US air space.

Despite US Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis' repeated assertions that "the airways have never been safer," CATCA has already reported 41 cases of potentially dangerous air incidents in the vicinity of the US-Canadian border following the US controllers strike.

In the US, the FAA is continuing its own investigation of the CATCA claims of air safety problems. FAA spokesman Fred Farrar asserted that "so far we've not been able to establish one of these charges." He adds that a preliminary probe of five "near-misses" documented since the start of the strike show they have been unrelated to the controllers' job action. Moreover, Mr. Farrar told the Monitor that these five near-misses, which took place from Aug. 3 to Aug 11, were in fact fewer than the number that occurred in the same period.

In another safety-related development, the FAA has agreed to continue until Sept. 8 its so-called "50 percent plan," under which 23 of the biggest commercial airports across the US will be permitted to operate flight schedules at levels 50 percent of normal. But by the agency's own admission many airports are widely exceeding this threshold that was designed to ensure maximum safety.

Meanwhile, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), is for the first time expressing doubt about the continued ability of the FAA to sustain air safety. ALPA spokesman John Mazor says that there is concern over how long the reduced number of controllers and supervisors "can keep up the pace over any length of time."

ALPA's new concern is that the current US air traffic, controller force--which includes some 2,400 supervisors, as well as military controllers and nonstriking regular controllers--may be inadequate to meet indefinitely current traffic demand. Robert Poli, president of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers, has maintained this position all along. The difference is that Mr. Poli contends there have been "blatant safety problems" because the current controller workforce is overtaxed.

Mr. Mazor, however, was quick to point out that to date a special ALPA safety committee has not found that any air control center or airport "is having major problems coping with the present level of traffic."

Recognizing the danger of overworking the substitude personnel, the FAA Aug. 12 made mandatory reductions in the number of hours any air traffic controller can work--with the ceiling on hours-per-week cut from 60 or more to a maximum of 48, or eight hours more than the 40-hour workweek the government offered PATCO before the union struck.

At Kennedy International Airport, America's chief gateway to Europe, international traffic was experiencing "extensive delays" as of this writing. But a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey--which runs Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark, N.J., airports--says that barring "unforeseen circumstances" international traffic should be on a par with domestic flights by Aug. 13. Helped by the near standstill on overseas flights during the CATCA boycott, the percentage of domestic traffic at these three airports reached nearly 80 percent of normal by early Aug. 12.

But there was one new setback for international travelers: Dutch controllers decided to refuse responsibility for flights to the United States starting Aug. 12, a union official at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport said.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said 20 flights per hour were leaving Europe for the United States today -- five times Tuesday's rate -- but experts warned it would take some time before the situation returns to normal.

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