SAFETY IN THE SKIES. Low number of air accidents masks an eroding margin of safety

Every working day, air traffic controller Richard Bamberger settles into his chair and gets set to push his skills to the limit. ``In the morning we end up with somewhere in the vicinity of 55 airplanes trying to depart out of here between 6:30 and 8 o'clock,'' says Mr. Bamberger, a 21-year veteran controller at San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

Day after day air traffic controllers, many of them relatively inexperienced, are being asked to jam more airplanes through an increasingly overloaded air traffic control system. And the result, despite their best efforts, is more mistakes - some big, some small.

Operational errors by controllers rose 20.9 percent during the first quarter of this year, compared with reductions in operating errors in the two previous years, according to James Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. An operational error includes letting a commercial jet get closer than five miles to another plane.

Near collisions, when planes come less than 1,000 feet from another plane, rose from 758 in 1985 to 839 last year. Of those, 240 involved commercial jets in 1985, rising to 340 last year - a 42 percent increase.

Runway incursion incidents, where planes barely miss one another, a vehicle, or a person while taxiing, increased nearly 50 percent between 1984 and last year (77 versus 115).

Despite these statistics, commercial aviation in the United States last year had the best record since 1980 for crashes and fatalities, even though air traffic controllers and government officials say safety margins are eroding.

But the incidence of fatal accidents is not a good index of safety, the General Accounting Office said in a February report to Congress. ``This is because many different things usually have to go wrong before an accident occurs,'' the report said.

``It concerns us even more,'' Mr. Burnett told Congress last week, ``that of those 340 near midair collisions in 1986, 57 were classified by the FAA as critical, denoting a situation where collision avoidance was due to chance.''

John Leyden, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told the Monitor the increase in near misses was due primarily to better reporting procedures. Still, controllers say the growing number of mistakes and close calls results from increasing workloads.

While most of the nation's airways flow smoothly, a recent FAA report showed 10.2 percent more departures and takeoffs at 22 airports between 1985 and '86. Air traffic at Atlanta was up 25 percent, while Los Angeles increased 17 percent, Detroit rose 46 percent, and Newark was up 55 percent. Traffic at en route control centers, which govern the air space between airports, saw similar jumps. Deregulation has brought lower fares and air travel to millions, while pushing airlines to overload airports at popular flying times.

Bamberger says that in the last 12 months, the San Diego airport has seen traffic increase more than 20 percent. Instead of handling 500 to 525 landings and takeoffs daily, the total is now about 700 a day.

``We get lucky sometimes and we get rid of 40 to 50 planes in an hour, depending on what the [out] flow rate is,'' Bamberger says. ``But what you're doing is pushing the outer limits. If I punch them out 10 miles apart to begin with, some controller down the line has got to make up that difference, because suddenly he's going to get swamped.''

When bad weather is mixed with tight airspace, the combination can be a problem even for a veteran controller. ``I'm working at one of the busiest airports there is now, and I'd say we're definitely working at redline,'' says Kurt Garrison, a controller with 10 years experience working in Detroit Tower, one of the fastest growing airports in the country.

Mr. Garrison and other controllers generally agree several things would solve the current problem: about 20 percent more manpower, less packing of flights in crucial hours, more full-performance controllers, new equipment (``We're still dealing with 1960s equipment,'' says Garrison), and better supervision.

Criticism of the current system by air traffic controllers has to be considered in light of a move by some to form a new nationwide controllers' union. FAA administrators argue that despite problems the system is still getting the job done safely.

``My relatives ask me if it is really safe to fly, and I have to prove my side of the story,'' says Richard Huff, a manager and facility administrator of the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, in Nashua, N.H. ``It amounts simply to this: Air travel is still by far the safest form of transportation. Period.''

Tomorrow: Finding ways to boost air safety.

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