What is the Reagan government waiting for — one major mid-air collision — before coming to its senses and either upgrading the air traffic controller system and staff or reducing the density of air traffic?
Since Mr. Reagan fired the illegally striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he has refused to reinstate three or four thousand of them even though study after study has shown them to be critically needed. A report commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concluded fatigue, low morale and other problems beset the beleaguered remnant of controllers. Reagan fired 11,000 out of some 15,000 controllers.
A few weeks ago, the Congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) urged the FAA to either reduce air traffic or increase the number of qualified controllers. In the congested New York City air traffic district, traffic is 10% greater than in 1981, yet, there are fewer than 60% of the fully qualified controllers available. The GAO study reported again that the hard-pressed controllers on the job are showing fatigue, low morale and a desire to increase the number of controllers.
Since Mr. Reagan has a duty to promote the safety of the skies, he should not have over-punished the striking controllers at the expense of air passenger safety. However, he wanted to destroy the union and the striking controllers’ careers permanently in order to send a message to other government and private unions that he will be tough on them also.
Whatever Mr. Reagan’s double standard in being tough on unions and soft on corporate crime and crooked government contractors, he has been very lucky so far. There have been some close shaves such as two jumbo Pan Am jets very nearly colliding above Florida three years ago. Some small plane collisions have been attributed to air traffic controller failure. But the figures collected by the FAA on near mid-air collisions
for 1985 should jar him into some action. Because until he acts, neither the FAA nor the Department of Transportation will act.
According to the FAA, there were 777 reported near midair collisions last year. (An undetermined number of additional close calls is routinely not reported.) The 1985 figure is up 31.9 percent over 1984, with the number of near-collisions involving major commercial air carriers up 75 percent. A near collision is defined as two or more aircraft on a collision course less than 500 feet apart. For example, in March 1985 at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, two Northwest Airlines DC-10 planes almost collided on the runway. Less than 100 feet were between the two aircraft which contained more than 400 passengers.
Of course, these near crashes can occur due to inadequate radar or collision-avoidance equipment, pilot operational errors or air traffic controller deficiencies. But the latter remains the principal problem that can be most promptly corrected if Mr. Reagan is willing to move away from his irrational obstinancy.
Other than reducing the risk of air tragedies, why should he? If, heaven forbid, there occurs a major mid-air or runaway collision due to inexperienced or fatigued air traffic controller mistakes, who will be blamed? Not Mr. Reagan, not FAA chief Engen, not Department of Transportation head, Dole. The responsibility will be localized and the official explanation would probably be that it could have happened before 1981 as well as now.
Studies, testimony, Congressional hearings and re-commendations, rising near mid-air collisions, over-stressed controllers — none of these have moved the Reaganites. Will it take, as one observer put it, one “free” disaster in the skies before the White House comes to care?