Federal Aviation Administrator Langhorne Bond handed the aviation community a contingency plan yesterday that would limit airline service dramatically if the nation's air traffic controllers strike next spring as Bond predicted.
"I believe a strike will happen," Bond said in a briefing to airlines, the military services, and business and pleasure aviation users. He charged that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) "is planning a nationwide strike that closes everything." PATCO's contract expires March 15.
According to Bond's draft plan, if there is a strike, most people who need to travel less than 500 miles will have to drive or take the train. The Federal Aviation Administration will give top priority to essential military flights and second priority to scheduled airline flights of more than 500 miles. Only then will other flights be considered.
Bond's chief counsel, Clark Onstad, was asked if that plan would not discriminate in favor the Uniteds, Americans and Trans Worlds and against the Piedmonts, Ozarks and Republics.
"Yes," he said. "It's based upon the practical consideration of what's available in the total transportation network. There are automobiles in those short-haul markets."
Most airlines contacted thought it was a good idea for the FAA to be doing contingency planning, but the short-haul carriers found the plan wanting. d
Edwin I. Colodny, chairman and president of USAir, said "we're very concerned about the FAA proposal and are considering formal objections to it." USAir's average flight is less than 500 miles. "I don't believe it's equitable to say that only travel going long distances will be accommodated," Colodny said.
PATCO represents 85 percent of the nation's 17,000 air traffic controllers, all of whom are Federal Aviation Administration employes. A strike would be illegal, but such technicalities have not stopped PATCO from various job actions -- primarily work-to-the-rule slowdowns -- in the past. There was a nationwide strike in 1970.
Bond's contingency plan assumes a "worst case" in which only supervisory personnel would be available to tell pilots how to keep from running their airplanes into each other. He said it would mean that the air traffic service would operate at only 15 percent of normal strength and that only between 35 percent and 40 percent of the more than 12,000 scheduled daily airline flights could be handled by controllers. Under federal regulation, airline flights must remain in the hands of the air traffic control system from takeoff to landing.
The FAA has established a schedule that designates the routes that would be permitted with minimum staffing. However, it does not say which airlines would fly them. "We've just got to hope there will be cooperation among the airlines," said Onstad. If controllers began to trickle back to work, more flights could be added, Bond said.
Bond and Onstad said they believe they have the legal authority to allocate air space, at least on a first-come first-serve basis, but lawyers for a number of aviation interests are not so sure.
PATCO President Robert Poli has denied repeatedly that his union is planning a strike. However, PATCO has distributed to its members a thick sheaf of papers that, taken together, read like a how-to-strike manual. Additionally, PATCO has started what Bond calls a strike fund that contains about $2 million.
PATCO spokesman Marcia Feldman said that the how-to manual is actually a contingency document for use if Congress ever should grant the right to strike, and the fund is to be used in the case of family emergencies.
Controllers have sought for years to be paid at the level of airline pilots.
Bond said they want salaries of $73,000 a year, with $10,000 bonuses and fewer work hours a week. Top-rated controllers now get about $43,000 a year, excluding overtime.