The government should limit air traffic to ease pressures on the nation's air traffic controllers, a special government task force reported yesterday.
The controllers fear they may begin suffering dangerous stress and fatigue from overwork caused by the recent firing of thousands of striking controllers they replaced, the National Transportation Safety Board task force on the effects of the strike said.
The panel recommended that the government establish of a program as soon as possible to detect the onset of fatigue and stress resulting from the increased working hours. The group also urged that at least one supervisor be on duty near the controllers at all times.
Although generally agreeing that the problems should be solved, the board said it wants to work more on the remedies and declined to forward the recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The board members cautioned that they didn't want to frighten the public or suggest that the controllers are suffering now. But board Chairman James B. King said "circumstances could be created where there could be a serious problem."
"The stress now is particularly unique," said David Thomas, task force manager. "The controllers are on a can-do high, working extra hours, providing services people didn't think they could do."
"They have personal problems, long time away from home," Thomas continued. "There's a lot of new pressure on controllers that wasn't measured before the strike. It's important the evidence of these problems is known to supervisors and not dismissed as when the fired controllers brought them up."
The staff cautioned that the airways are safe now and that the controllers, although working as much as 52 hours a week, are not suffering from stress and fatigue. But they said something needs to be done to prevent a future breakdown in the system.
One of the major problems is that the controllers are so gung-ho and determined to do a good job that they are taking on additional tasks, the staff said. When that happens, they often place additional burdens on other controllers down the line. In addition, some aircraft are falsely identifying themselves as commercial carriers to enter the airways, causing an overload problem, the staff said. During one month, 900 planes wrongly identified themselves as commercial carriers in the Minneapolis area, King said.
Controllers interviewed by the staff also said they are burdened with the extra work of training new controllers and fear that when the new group of recruits is hired next year the problem will become more critical, the staff said.
The controllers "realize they are at their limit," said Janice Stoklosa, a task force member. "In a questionnaire, 50 percent of the controllers said they were giving out the maximum effort. The question is how long can they put out that maximum effort."
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the striking union, has said the new controllers are overworked and often unqualified and that air travel is not safe since nearly 12,000 controllers were fired after striking the federal government on Aug. 3. Last month they asked the Federal Labor Relations Authority to send government negotiators back to the bargaining table to help them get their jobs back.
But Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said in a speech yesterday that the government won't rehire any of the strikers although "we miss 11,500 controllers."
Meanwhile, former controller Steven Wallaert of Norfolk, on trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on civil contempt charges stemming from the strike, said he felt the government wanted the strikers back. "I know they need us. We still want to go back," Wallaert said. "Wait until Thanksgiving and Christmas" traffic rush, Wallaert said, shaking his head.
To help maintain safe airways, the Federal Aviation Administration has already cut flights to about 75 percent of normal volume and placed restrictions on instrument flights by private aircraft in New York, Chicago and Cleveland.
The final task force report will be completed in the next few weeks, a board spokesman said. But the three recommendations were made yesterday because the task force members felt they had received enough information from the controllers, the spokesman said.