FOLLOW-UP

Flying with clipped wings

JANE O'HARA December 21 1981
FOLLOW-UP

Flying with clipped wings

JANE O'HARA December 21 1981

Flying with clipped wings

FOLLOW-UP

President Ronald Reagan’s gettough decision to fire 11,500 illegally striking air traffic controllers in August wreaked overnight havoc on air travel. Suddenly executives, vacationers and jet-setters were hit with major delays and cutbacks, and, in the case of white-knuckled passengers, acute anxiety about the safety of flying the friendly skies. Although it will be years before things are completely back to normal, the worst of the worries and inconveniences have been eliminated. Flights have been trimmed to about 78 per cent of pre-strike levels, and goodweather delays still occur up to six times more frequently, but the substitution of larger planes means that total

seating capacity is only down about five per cent. The airlines are saving money on the cutbacks, and the strike has provided the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with a fortuitous solution to a chronic overstaffing problem. In fact, the only ones with nothing to cheer about are the strikers themselves.

There have been no major air disasters since the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike, but the onset of winter weather and the hurly-burly of Christmas air travel is once again focusing attention on the overworked and undermanned towers. PATCO has warned that it is only a matter of time before a major air crash; the FAA asserts with equal force that the skies have never been safer. Says Fred Farrar, spokesman for the

FAA: “We expect things to be pretty good for the Christmas rush with perhaps only a few more reductions in scheduled flights. So far our safety record has not been a matter of luck. It’s been a deliberate strategy to build more of a cushion of safety into the system.”

The cushion of safety has included cutting back the number of scheduled flights, especially at the U.S.’s 22 busiest airports. Another five-per-cent reduction was made in December as a precaution against severe winter weather and to get many of the present 10,000 controllers—who have been pieced together from the ranks of nonstriking controllers, supervisory personnel, mil-

itary controllers, retired controllers and support staffs—back on a more even-keeled 40-hour week. As a further safety measure, controllers have been separating planes trailing one another by 48 km instead of the scanty prestrike separation of eight kilometres. As well, the number of planes circling above airports in holding patterns has been slashed to reduce the dangerous clogging of airspace. “No plane is given the go-ahead to take off unless it has a clear shot at the other end,” says Farrar.

These safety measures may not be adequate compensation for travelling businessmen like Robert Speed, a St. Louis, Mo., shoe buyer, whose career depends on jet-hopping around the U.S. Says Speed: “It used to be you could get

where you were going any hour of the day. Now, I spend half my life waiting to take off.” Airlines report, however, that most air passengers have adjusted to the new trimmed-down schedules. The airlines themselves certainly have. Since the strike, most major commercial airlines have made up for fewer flights by using wider-bodied planes and jumbo jets. As a result, there has been little loss in the total number of seats. Airlines have cut more than

18.000 workers from their payrolls since the strike. The new regulations limiting the number of rush-hour flights have also lessened competition on certain routes, which could be bad news for consumers grown'used to whopping fare discounts and convenient selection.

Will the skies ever be the same again? The FAA predicts that things will be running smoothly again by 1984, when

14.000 controllers will be manning the towers. This is down from the 17,000 who watched the blipping screens before the strike, but the FAA has long maintained that the control towers were bloated with useless bodies. The PATCO strike—with demands for a $10,000 raise for workers averaging $33,000—brought the problem to a head and revealed to an unsympathetic public that towers were manned on peakhour staffing even at times, as on weekends, when airports were not busy.

If, as the airlines and FAA say, Christmas will be a good time for flying passengers, the same cannot be said for unemployed PATCO strikers. “It looks like it will be a bleak Christmas,” says John Basinger, 35, of Seattle, Wash., who earned $44,000 before the strike as a supervisor and now makes about $1,000 a month as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. Like Basinger, many of the fired controllers have taken a massive drop in pay since finding new jobs. Some have become butchers and liquorstore salesmen, others have held out on looking for work thinking that the strike might be settled and that they might one day return to the towers. As fired government employees, they also have been barred for three years from working for any federal agency.Robert Poli, president of the controllers’ union, is lobbying feverishly to get the striking PATCO workers back in the towers, but so far to no avail. A small concession was made recently when Reagan said he might lift the ban on hiring in other federal positions. To the union, which faces $150 million in fines and applied late last month for reorganization under the Federal Bankruptcy Act, it was the first good news since the strike. Said Poli at a recent meeting of the AFL-CIO in New York: “Our people are strong. They have not buckled. But they have suffered greatly, and it’s now time to get back to work.”

JANE O'HARA