Air Traffic Control “Intolerable”

The words were not circumscribed enough to be associated with a corporate executive. But on May 21, 1984 in a letter to Donald D. Engen, the new head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the chief of Pan Am, C. Edward Acker was blunt: “The Air Traffic Control problem,” he declared, “has gone from bad-to-worse-to-horrible-to-intolerable. We are now experiencing more frequent and more substantial delays in clear, optimum conditions than we were incurring during severe conditions a few months ago.”
Although hundreds of thousands of travelers could back up Mr. Acker’s description with their personal experiences of waiting on runways, the figures tell the larger story. So far this year, delays are up 55% over last year, with May registering a surge of 112 percent greater.

Delays are a symptom of two conditions — too many flights especially at the larger “hub” airports such as New York, Atlanta and Chicago, and too few air traffic controllers to handle the traffic. Airports cannot be expanded quickly, so the problem boils down in the short term for the FAA either to hire more traffic controllers and/or to reduce the mounting number of flights.

Earlier this year, under pressure of the airlines, the Reagan Administration revoked traffic restrictions on 18 of 22 airports which were imposed following the controllers’ strike and the prompt firing of 11,400 controllers by Mr. Reagan in 1981. With the onset of more airlines and the summer traveling season, the number of flights grew to a point where there are now five percent more flights than in 1981. But there are only half the number of fully experienced controllers as there were in 1981 and less than 25% the number of variously qualified controllers over three years ago.

At the New York control center, the number of radar—qualified controllers numbers 149 compared to 336 before the strike. These air traffic specialists had to handle 10% more flights than a comparable period in April 1981.

Some publicized near misses have added to the anxiety. Two Pan American World Airways jumbo jets carrying 496 passengers missed colliding into each other just east of Miami at 37,000 feet by a mere one second. Disaster was averted when one of the planes swerved just in time.

There is a remarkable consensus, apart from the FAA’s rosy view, about the air traffic crises. ‘The National Transportation Safety Board has urged the FAA not to allow more flights until it rebuilds the system. Tom Tripp of the Air Transport Association, the airlines group, says the situation has “reached a critical mass.” The Airline Pilots Association is saying the same thing.

Even the staid Aviation Safety Institute is sounding the alarm: President John B. Galipault asserts: “With more than 300 near misses reported to us each year, and the monumental physical and mental facing controllers, we see a deeply troubled air traffic control system. The near miss warnings are obvious— The immediate cure must be to limit Air traffic, to add more qualified controllers and to cut their incredible workload.”

FAA’s Engen has a different perspective. He recounts the good safety record of the airlines in the past two years. He says that hiring back two or three thousand of the discharged air controllers would upset many of the present controllers who might walk off the job. This is simply not true, according to our sources. Their fledging group, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, wants more controllers to relieve the severely burdened ones now on the job six days a week. They would welcome some of the former radar qualified controllers returning to help.

Ronald Reagan shows no sign of forgiveness. These controllers struck illegally; they have been punished for the past three years; twenty five percent of them are urgently needed to make the skies safer for millions of Americans. Should Mr. Reagan persist in allowing more and more flights to crowd the skies around the airports and not promptly increase the number of qualified, veteran controllers, he simply is being vindictive. He is also not exercising his duty to protect the safety of air travellers.

Few corporate executives who steal hundreds of millions of dollars under defense contracts from the taxpayers receive this banishment punishment from Mr. Reagan. Indeed they are rarely identified, much less prosecuted and convicted. And preventing them from engaging in any government business would not jeopardize the safety of innocent third parties, as is occurring with banned controllers and innocent passengers.

Think it over again, President Reagan, before a preventable mid—air collision makes you regret your refusal to accord these controllers a measure of redemption.

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