More US air traffic now than before '81 controller strike

The world's busiest airport - Chicago's O'Hare - is about to become even busier. In response to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) willingness to increase the hourly quota of landings and takeoffs from 135 to 155 an hour, many airlines are beefing up their O'Hare schedules starting today.

United Airlines alone is adding 67 daily flights. ''We've been waiting quite some time to see these restrictions lifted to get fuller use of our planes and crews,'' says United spokesman Joe Hopkins. ''We've felt there's been some discrimination against Chicago in favor of other hub airports. . . . We're playing catch-up.''

Yet nationwide these days there are more landings and takeoffs than there were before the August 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike. There are still some limits on peak-hour traffic at O'Hare and at New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia. But FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman says that except for Los Angeles, where traffic limits remain because of airport construction and the coming Olympics, all restrictions imposed since the strike have been lifted.

By the FAA's own admission, however, the air-traffic control system has not yet fully recovered. Although the agency is now close to its sharply reduced manpower goal of 12,422 controllers to run the system, it must still rely on 5, 000 who are still in training, according to FAA current figures. Seasoned controllers at busy airports have often had to work six-day weeks and take limited vacations. (Many of them want to work overtime, says Mr. Feldman.) And more than 2,274 of these veterans will be eligible for retirement next year, the FAA says.

The shortage of experienced controllers, the steady increase in traffic, and a growing number of reported ''operational errors'' (when planes pass closer than FAA rules allow) are leading to renewed widespread concern over whether or not the margin of safety built into the system is adequate.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which in a report last year urged that traffic be limited until the system is rebuilt and supervisers are back at their original jobs, is currently looking into two near-miss incidents in which heavy controller workloads appear to be a factor. In one incident involving four planes over Pennsylvania May 9, New York controllers reportedly tried eight times without success to get their counterparts in Leesburg, Va., to take over guidance of a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jumbo jet.

For the first three months of this year, by the FAA's own data, there were close to 400 operational errors - more than half the total for all of 1983. The FAA stresses that the increase is a reflection of the computerized ''quality assurance'' program now in most regional centers that detects even the smallest errors. Most of them, the FAA says, are not major.

But Ralph Nader, who founded the Aviation Consumer Action Project, and ACAP executive director Michael Hancock dispatched a letter two weeks ago to US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole suggesting that the ''dramatic'' rise in errors was largely the result of increased traffic. Charging her department with doing ''too much too soon,'' they urged that the decision to lift landings and takeoffs at most airports be reconsidered.

The FAA and Secretary Dole, though still drafting a formal response, have long insisted that the government allows no more traffic into the system than it can safely handle. But Mr. Hancock counters: ''The air-traffic control system is dangerously overburdened. It doesn't have the margin of safety it had before the strike. The FAA should take a step backward.''

Pilots, too, are concerned. ''We do feel the system has been operating safely , but it's starting to wear thin in some places,'' says Air Line Pilots Association spokesman John Mazor. ''We're certainly approaching the limits in some specific local airports and probably for the system as a whole. Our biggest concern is that the FAA not give in to the (airline) industry, which is pushing to make market demand the sole limiting factor.''

And testimony in hearings this spring on controller working conditions held by a House public-works subcommittee indicates that many of the old labor-management, stress, and morale problems that figured in the strike three years ago still exist. Rep. Elliott Levitas (D) of Georgia, chairman of the subcommittee, has warned that unless the FAA recognizes and corrects them, another walkout by controllers is likely.

Lawrence Jones, president of the Coleman Company and former head of a three-member task force that two years ago did an extensive study of controller working conditions, has been asked to take another look at the problem. His group will begin interviewing many workers at FAA headquarters on June 21, according to FAA spokesman Ed Pinto. Although the group reported gains in a review last year, Mr. Jones said during the recent House hearings that he did not expect the new review to show an improvement in morale or human relations. Generally, working controllers are reluctant to criticize the system. But some have written anonymously to Representative Levitas and others. Some 120 are members of the US Air Traffic Controllers Organization and register their concerns with that group, according to Larry Phillips of USATCO's Washington office. And former Chicago controller Roy Bozych, a USATCO member, says he has talked with a number of controllers about the increase in flights at O'Hare. ''Many are very upset about it - they're working six-day weeks.''

Yet O'Hare control-tower chief Chester Anderson said through an FAA spokesman here that no big change in workload or added curbs on vacations is expected. ''The biggest change is that the peak hours will start earlier and last longer, '' he said.

Certainly, the planned expansion of O'Hare facilities over the next few years (Delta doubles its gate total with a new terminal today) should help some by making more room for the added traffic. And the FAA's 20-year, $10 billion air-traffic control modernization plan, with increased computerization and development of reliever airports for general aviation, should help to expand the system's safety margin.

Also encouraging to some aviation safety experts is the arrival April 10 at the FAA of former NTSB member Donald C. Engen as chief. ''It should certainly help the board's relationship with the FAA administrator, but it won't solve all the tensions - nor should it,'' says NTSB spokesman Ira Furman, who notes the FAA has adopted about 80 percent of the board's suggestions. Pressures on the FAA to remove remaining traffic curbs have been strong. Both the airlines and Chicago aviation commissioner Thomas Kapsalis urged the agency to allow at least 165 flights an hour at O'Hare, for instance, arguing that anything less would jeopardize airline expansion plans there.

''We think there's been a good recovery of capacity since the strike,'' says James McCarthy of the Air Transport Asssociation, ''(but) we'd like to see more capacity and more productivity.'' But Alfred Norling, a New York-based aviation analyst with Kidder Peabody & Co., suggests that the reach may already exceed the grasp. ''It looks as if domestic seat capacity will be up about 10 percent this year - that's about twice as high as the expected increase in traffic.''

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