Air traffic controller problems linger, uncorrected in airport towers across US

Are some of the same workplace problems that more than a year ago led to a nationwide strike and the eventual firing of 11,400 US air traffic controllers surfacing again? Many of the on-the-job frustrations linger and, in fact, may have increased, according to a number of working controllers and several recent independent studies.

Money was one strike issue. Working conditions and hours were another. Soon controller paychecks will begin to reflect the 6.6 percent salary hike proposed by the President and approved by Congress.

Some controllers insist they do (and must) work 10-hour days and 6-day weeks. ''It's sink or swim - there aren't enough people. . . ,'' one New York controller recently complained to the Ohio-based Aviation Safety Institute. Some who have been carrying heavy loads say the time between breaks can be long, that scheduled time off is sometimes abruptly canceled, and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not been training new recruits as well or as swiftly as predicted.

A group of 14 controllers and one superviser at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport recently tried to press the manpower point by signing a petition urging President Reagan to rehire at least some of the fired controllers.

Some controllers also say that without a union to complain to (the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - PATCO - was officially dissolved last summer), the attitude of some FAA supervisers is more highhanded than ever. ''If you can't hack it, quit'' is the message some say they get from their bosses.

''The same problems are still there, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction,'' says John Schmitt, who was president of the PATCO local that represented controllers in the Aurora en-route center near Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He says he has since become a commodity trader and would probably not go back unless working conditions improved.

Though much controller complaining goes on quietly, reaching the news media only indirectly, several recent studies confirm the widespread nature of the problem and the importance of a swift effort to correct it.

For instance, a federally appointed team of three management experts which issued the so-called Jones report last March concluded that FAA managers and supervisers tend to be ''insensitive and rigid'' and their style ''autocratic'' in dealing with controllers. Low morale and stress, the report said, remain key problems. Job assessments of both working and striking controllers were found to be markedly similar and largely negative. The report urges a radical effort to improve communications at every level and to take into account the ability to deal well and easily with people in both management training and promotions.

''The situation [for controllers] hasn't gotten any better since the strike, '' insists Dr. David Bowers, a research scientist with the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research and one of the authors of the Jones report. ''If anything, from what I hear, it's grown worse.''

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study last fall said both controller fatigue and workloads should be watched, but pronounced the system ''safe'' as then operated under FAA-imposed traffic limits.

This fall an independent review of that study by veteran NTSB investigator Claude Shonberger charged that the earlier report ''misled'' the public and that the margin of safety in the system has ''greatly deteriorated'' since the strike.

Last month the NTSB launched a long-planned second look at the safety question. Results will probably be announced early next year. Air traffic experts generally hope for more objective and meaningful findings this time. They say the lapse of time, the less emotionally charged public climate, and the fact that controllers are being sent long questionnaires to answer anonymously at home rather than at work bode well for more honest conclusions.

''The board has been monitoring the situation for quite a while, and I think they're going to give it a pretty good look-see,'' notes Mr. Shonberger.

The FAA readily acknowledges that labor relations and employee morale within its ranks could be better. But it also contends the situation is not so bad as a few disgruntled employees have been trying to paint it. Conceding that some controllers, for instance, work six-day weeks in busier airports, Administrator J. Lynn Helms insists the average controller workweek is closer to 44 hours, including overtime.

Since the controller work force is down to a little more than 9,000 from its prestrike high of 17,500, the FAA is running double sessions at its Oklahoma City training facility and maintains it is graduating new recruits as quickly as they qualify. A federal grand jury has been investigating charges that some failing candidates were passed to speed up the process.

To keep the traffic load for each controller at a reasonable level, the FAA controls the flow of air traffic and has kept total flights at 85 to 90 percent of prestrike levels.

''I do feel these controllers have worked very hard, and I hope they can get some relief,'' observes Chicago-based TWA pilot Jerry Lawler, who says he rarely encounters any noticeable aggravation or irritation in his dealings with controllers. ''But it's fairly difficult for those actually controlling the planes to get overloaded when they don't have that much traffic.''

Though the FAA considers money the prime cause of the controller strike, the agency has deferred to its critics to some degree by making a few management changes. A human-relations specialist has been hired in each FAA region and advisory committees, to improve communication and receive employee suggestions, have been set up at each control facility. The FAA, which has also published a new manual on employee rights, says it will try to pay more attention to human-relations ability in promotions. Air traffic managers at every level now take two weeks of specialized training in human relations at the agency's Lawton , Okla., facility.

But some FAA critics insist all this apparent activity amounts to more hustle and bustle than substance.

''Sooner or later the FAA is going to have to recognize that it has a serious problem and face up to the need for some radical operational changes,'' Dr. Bowers insists. ''I wouldn't knock the management training school, for instance, but taking people off site for a couple weeks of training doesn't change anything if they go back to the same situation.''

''You can't really address a problem if you don't admit it exists,'' concurs Matthew Finucane, executive director of Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project. ''We understand the FAA to say it doesn't have a fatigue, stress, or overwork problem - they seem to be stonewalling that whole issue. . . . It's a paradoxical situation because if they acknowledge the problem, it means admitting they may have made a mistake in not bringing back some of the [fired] controllers.''

William Taylor, a spokesman for the four-month-old US Air Traffic Controller Organization (USATCO), a nonprofit corporation that welcomes any past or present controllers as members, reasons that the FAA may yet be forced to take back some of the fired controllers in spite of the administration's clear opposition. He says that 10,900 of those fired are appealing the decision on procedural and lack-of-evidence grounds with the Merit System Protection Board. The hearings on those cases will end this year, and the board has promised decisions by February. Mr. Taylor estimates that 1,000 to 3,000 cases will be successful and that those controllers, once federal appeals are exhausted, will be reinstated in their old jobs, with back pay.

''We feel that rehiring is the most effective immediate solution to the air traffic system's problems . . . and we're the only organization trying - and making progress - to resolve the impasse and break down the barriers between working and former controllers,'' he says. As yet, however, only about 25 of the 1,450 USATCO members are working controllers.

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