Time to negotiate with the controllers

In pursuing its collision course with the air traffic controllers, the administration is still flying and the controllers have been grounded. The popularity of its tough stance and the isolation of the controllers have left the government with little inclination to seek a settlement. But, though the administration has guessed right politically, it may have made some serious technological errors as to what it takes to rebuild the air traffic system.

The projection that air traffic could be back to normal in 12 to 18 months seriously understates the experience necessary to run the system and its tangled state before the strike. The hard-line political posture is based on the ability to keep air traffic moving -- even at a reduced level -- while firing the strikers. In the short run this is made possible by an automated procedure called "flow control" that uniformly spaces aircraft through the skies and allows a maximum use of facilities and controllers. The Federal Aviation Administraion (FAA) has been secretly fine-tuning this system over the last year in anticipation of the strike -- a fact that may have hardened the administration's bargaining posture.

In the long run, however, air traffic control remains heavily dependent on the skill and insight of the controllers. Computers serve as an aid rather than a replacement for human judgment, particularly in critical situations such as landings at a busy airport. The elimination, therefore, of the accumulated experience of 12,000 air controllers represents a major loss.

Replacing these controllers is a tricky business. There is a key distinction between instruction -- no matter how thorough -- and the knowledge that comes from doing. Moreover, as people learn the profession the errors that are bound to occur must be carefully supervised, a difficultjob with fewer seasoned controllers. Nonetheless, the system requires zero defect performance.

These problems are compounded by a system whose reliability and management were widely questioned before the strike. For example, a June 11, 1981, report by a House of Representatives subcommittee reads like an indictment of FAA operations. The report found that computer malfunctions "pose a threat to safety, especially during peak traffic periods" and then strongly criticized the FAA for "not doing an effective job of alleviating problems caused by automated data processing equipment failures or planning for replacement of the equipment."

After withering criticism of the FAA's methods for reporting computer failures and for its inadequate maintenance program, the subcommittee report warned that "at some point the rubber band may snap and FAA will have a difficult time at best recovering."

Labor relations have added further strain. Controllers have complained about military-style discipline and constant harrassment. The 77 controllers at Boston's Logan field, for example, were subject to nine suspensions and 20 repremands since March 1980. Even Drew Lewis, the secretary of transportation, has conceded problems that have been "festering 6, 8, 10 years."

In spite of this, the administration has skillfully made the legality of the strike the central public issue. This avoids addressing the underlying problems propelling the system to its present impasse or the legitimacy of the controllers' demands.

One contributing cause is the snail's pace at which the FAA moves. A senate committee, for example, had to threaten a funding cutoff to gain action on safety-related issues. The controllers -- whose occupation demands split-second decisionmaking -- were confronted with a bureaucracy that could postpone decisions indefinitely.

The central issues of the strike -- working conditions in the control tower and measures to relieve their toll on the controllers -- have remained unaddressed for years. A shorter work week and earlier retirement -- far from being excessive demands -- would only put air controllers in the mainstream of what their colleagues throughout the rest of the world already enjoy. It should give us all cause for concern that US controllers handle busier airports with longer working hours than their European counterparts.

Ironically, although the strikers are accused of violating the public trust, they are in fact fighting for the public interest. No one has said that a shorter work week and earlier retirment will harm the air traffic system or the public, and the strikers passionately believe these measures are necessary to ensure safety. The strike was their only vehicle left to make this case.

The most reasonable course to settle this dispute is to return to collective bargaining. The administration has shown it is adept at flexing its muscles, but ideology does not guide airplanes. A return to negotiations is necessary to address the complex questions of air safety.

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