Keeping the skies safe for air travelers - what can be done? Ideas include an independent FAA, more money, staff, and better training

To spot the erosion of safety in the United States air traffic control system is no great task - but to fix it will require a more determined effort. Critics say politics, out-dated technology, bad management, and bureaucracy have made air traffic less competent and safe than it should be.

``We invented air traffic control and made it the best system in the world,'' says John Leyden, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. ``Now all of a sudden everybody says, `Hey, the FAA can't be trusted to run the air traffic control system.' They say: `You guys have lost your commitment to public safety.' Again, that's nonsense. Safety is always job one.''

Yet independent critics like the National Transportation Safety Board, General Accounting Office, legislators, and safety experts see a growing safety problem as human error and mechanical malfunction in guiding aircraft become more prevalent.

Air controllers are moving to form a new union to deal with work conditions that they feel have degraded their professional abilities. Many veterans say they are nearing ``burnout'' after working six-day weeks, sometimes for years at a time. This massive effort has followed the 1981 firing of 11,400 controllers by President Reagan for an illegal strike.

Serious understaffing and a lack of full-performance controllers are common. Controllers also say training standards for new controllers are sloppy.

``The first thing that has to be done, that hasn't been done, is for the FAA to admit that there is a problem,'' says Edward Wood of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation in Arlington, Va. ``So far they have not really admitted there is a problem.''

Of course, the airline industry also has a big stake in safety. But while publicly affirming the need for a better air traffic control, airlines chafe when flights are grounded and pressure the FAA to put as many airplanes into the air as possible.

Still, the crux of the problem lies with the government. Critics contend that the FAA, the Department of Transportation, and the White House are hesitant to acknowledge problems because they backed air deregulation.

``Part of the problem is that the FAA is so closely aligned to the executive branch of government,'' says Fred Gilbert, an air traffic controller.

Of course, there has been progress. The FAA, whose chief mandate is to maintain safety, has announced technological improvements to its air traffic control system. And airlines last month, at the behest of the Department of Transportation, altered flight schedules and decreased the number of flights at peak times. That relieves some burden, although an industry spokesman calls the move temporary and ``anticompetitive.''

Most important, the accident and mortality rates among commercial jets, which the FAA likes to call the ``bottom-line'' statistic, is very low relative to the higher number of flights. The problem, critics say, is that this statistic masks the fact that many human errors must take place before an air accident occurs - and that controller errors are increasing.

Among proposed improvements:

Make the FAA independent to free it from political pressures. The FAA was placed under the Department of Transportation during the '60s. Some, including the airline industry, would like to see a privatized FAA funded by the Aviation Trust Fund. Others see something akin to the postal service.

Free the nearly $5 billion Aviation Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes on tickets, to pay for improvements in the air traffic system, including computers, new radar, and new radio equipment. The funds are considered part of the federal budget, and critics say the President won't release them because it would make the budget deficit appear larger.

Conduct a thorough, independent review of current training procedures and requirements for air controllers. The FAA has revised its standards to provide less on-the-job experience between promotions. Controllers say new trainees, and even full-performance controllers are less well prepared and are being thrust into tough situations too soon.

Reassess FAA staffing standards nationwide. Current data from the General Accounting Office indicate shortfalls at many facilities nationwide. Find out how many controllers and supervisors are really needed. It may be necessary to revise criteria for promoting controllers to supervisory positions.

``We place a high level of expectation on our work force - and expect them to perform their function error-free,'' says Richard Huff, a manager and administrator of the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, in Nashua, N.H.

Several controllers, some of whom are actively trying to form a new union, say they are professionals first and foremost, and would not talk about safety issues just to win sympathy for their cause.

``I've controlled airplanes for 27 years,'' says Gary Molen, a controller at Salt Lake Center. ``The system is not improving, it's not getting any better for the guys that work the boards.''

Though tensions between FAA supervisors and controllers have grown, the safety issue supercedes all other concerns when controllers sit down to begin their daily battle to keep airliners traveling from converging on one another the skies.

``The system is safe if you want to call it that, because the controllers and the pilots make it safe,'' says controller Daniel Bunce of Chicago Center. ``But in some cases we're doing it by the skin of our teeth.''

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