Tower to FAA: how safe are US air lanes?

Some supervisors manning air traffic control facilities are increasingly concerned about the impact of the air traffic controllers strike on US air safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) staunchly maintains that the current controller work force is adequate to oversee US airspace. But three supervisors who work in a busy air traffic zone argue that long hours in the tower and a lack of experienced colleagues during the Reagan administration's massive replacement program are compromising the safety of air travel.

Air traffic at many airports has been reduced by about 25 percent because of the nearly month-long strike by air traffic controllers, FAA officials say. Despite this, many tower supervisors are clearly unhappy with existing safety measures and working conditions.

"We send out for our meals and there is very, very little time off the position we're short as far as qualified people," one tower supervisor says. He requested anonymity because of concern for losing his job, but he has many years experience and is respected by superiors and the men and women under him alike.

"Personally," he says, "the only time I get out of the tower facility I'm working in is to go to the men's room and back.

"There is really no time off the position. It's just that simple. . . . We're [supervisors] overextended as far as training. You can't become proficient in a [air traffic control] position in a matter of one or two weeks and then turn around and train someone else who has no background at all as far as commercial aviation is concerned.

"You can't handle the volume of traffic we're handling and training at the same time and say that safety has not been hurt. That's what's happening. Let's face it: If you are working with one-third the work force in a particular facility and trying to train at the same time, something's got to give someplace."

These misgivings follow a call late last week by the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association (CATA) for the suspension of all Canadian flights to and from the US because of alleged safety violations, and as three independent US investigating teams probe air safety.

The FAA maintains that the system is safe. It argues that with reduced flight schedules and greater "separation" distances between planes, the nonstriking controllers, supervisors, and military controllers are keeping the flying public safe.

But one top Reagan administration offcial, who also requested anonymity, admitted privately that the system is not as safe as it should be -- thus appearing to confirm the supervisors' concerns.

FAA public affairs officer Ted Maher and other control tower supervisory personnel deny that the air traffic system is fraught with safety breeches.

"We're very happy with the way things are going," says William Canty, operations officer at National Airport in Washington, D.C., among the nation's busiest. As operations officer he is third in charge. "We are training the controllers from the Air Force and Army and there's no problem at all."

Mr. Maher offers that if FAA tower supervisors have specific complaints about safety, they should immediately inform their regional operations chiefs. He adds that the federal agency would go to any lengths, including "cutting traffic" more, to ensure safety.

Asked what happens when he complains to his superiors, one supervisor contacted by the Monitor says that he usually gets one of two responses. He says he's either told that the system is safe or that his concern is shared, but that those sharing his concern "are not in positions where there's a lot they can do about it."

How long can supervisors continue to man key traffic control jobs and train newcomers at the same time?

It's only a matter of time, he says.

"Most of us [supervisors] are to a point where when you get home you're exhausted. I know of a [tower] facility where there's only one or two people in that facility that can work on a particular position. They are working anywhere from six to eight hours on that particular position, and this is unheard of."

Harry Hubbard, chief air traffic control supervisor at National Airport, says that although there are "problems of logistics" in training replacements -- these are to be expected, he says -- they pose no "safety problems whatsoever."

But other supervisors wonder why, if there are no safety problems, the federal government won't let Canadian union controllers join in inspecting US air traffic control facilities, instead of allowing only Canadian government officials to inspect US facilities.

One supervisor says there also is the question of air space going unmonitored.

"I know one facility where one TCA [terminal control area] is not being staffed at all," this supervisor said. "Just terminated. If a plane wants to fly through that area, they [ground controllers] are not going to give it the service. But you see the planes going through these areas anyway. So then it becomes a more dangerous situation. . . ."

Maher admits some US airspace monitored by ground controllers before the strike is not watched now because of the manpower shortage. He adds, however, that this poses no safety problem "because two planes are not going to be led into this space at the same time on a collision course."

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