As peak season nears, air control questions persist

The annual summer air travel boom is coming. But is the US air-control system ready to handle it?

Federal officials--who last year fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers--say they are sure they can handle the rush. One sign of their growing confidence: 15 of the 22 major US airports will be allowed to take on extra flights late next month as the peak season approaches.

However, a survey of consumer groups, pilots' associations, and other interested parties shows that while some share that confidence, others clearly do not.

The increase in flights in April will come just eight months after most of the 13,000-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off their jobs.

The air-traffic control system, according Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington, now operates at 86 percent of capacity during peak periods at the 22 regulated or ''pacing'' airports and at 84 percent at others. He says there are about 10,000 controllers on the job. The amount of time they must work each week varies according to the number of people who struck at their facility. The across-the-board average is 48 hours a week.

Mr. Farrar expects the number of controllers to increase gradually over the next several months, chiefly as the more than 900 recent graduates of the FAA academy in Oklahoma City take places in the system. The number of borrowed military controllers--1,000 at the peak--has dwindled to ''about 700,'' most of whom will return to their bases by early fall, he says. Most of the military controllers have performed only backup tasks.

The FAA still has on duty 1,200 ''flight data specialists,'' most of them furloughed pilots, who also assist the regular controllers. And there may be yet another source of manpower for the FAA. Last week the agency confirmed that it has rehired three striking controllers and may increase that number to 200 or more on a case-by-case basis. To be reinstated, a dismissed controller must prove to the FAA's satisfaction that he or she was intimidated into joining the strike.

In their public postures, PATCO and the FAA remain unforgiving adversaries. Spokesmen for the union say it was the FAA that ''fired the first shot'' and that many nonstriking controllers still ''want us'' to be their union. As for the air-control system, they say the nation ''has been fairly lucky so far.'' But they point out that the average controller, who before the strike had from eight to nine years' experience, now has about one.

PATCO executive vice-president Domenic Torchia disputes the claim by FAA chief J. Lynn Helms that ''systems errors''--near misses in midair--have dropped by 50 percent since the strikers left. He also argues that even if the FAA manages to reduce the average controller's work week to 40 hours, ''that's still more than in any other industrialized country in the world.'' One of PATCO's demands in the strike was for a 32-hour week.

Replies Farrar: ''PATCO has been thoroughly discredited. Pilot after pilot after pilot has gone on national television and said so. PATCO may dispute us, but unsuccessfully.'' He says the system ''is as safe now as ever before--if not safer.''

Others agree.

A spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association in Washington says his group ''fairly quickly determined in the early days of the strike that the system is safe, and we have not seen anything since that would change that opinion.''

Adds Charles Spence, a spokesman for the 225,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association: ''We have no more concern over the system now than we had before the strike. We haven't suffered in safety, but we've suffered in utility. Our biggest problem at the moment is pressure to take away some of general aviation's capacity and give it to the airlines.''

But the system also has its critics, some of whom are working controllers.

A survey of more than 800 nonstrikers by the Roper Organization, released March 25, found that 58 percent of the respondents--whose anonymity was guaranteed--did not want the strikers rehired. But 31 percent said the rehiring of some strikers under certain conditions would not displease them.

Wrote one controller in response to the survey: ''We need people. The present method of hiring and training isn't doing the job. In seven months, we've seen no new people on the floor. I've worked six days a week since the strike, and the future looks no better.''

Another commented: ''The glory is fading. We're getting tired and need to be able to take some time off. Rehiring former controllers would be the fastest way to ease this problem.''

Says Matthew Finucane of the Ralph Nader Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington: ''I don't see how you can read these comments by the controllers and be confident about the system. I don't really have confidence in it, particularly if an airport is congested or the weather is bad.''

The FAA, Mr. Finucane maintains, has painted itself into a corner by boasting that the system is completely safe, adding: ''Now they'll look foolish if they don't increase the capacity.''

The question of safety, as articulated by the National Transportation Safety Board since the strike, rests on a delicate balance between the number of planes in the air and the number of experienced controllers on duty. ''The problem with that analysis,'' Finucane says, ''is that there's no known mathematical correlation between controllers and the number of flights they can handle.''

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