If you want to know what the air traffic control strike means to aviation, just tune your radio to about 120 mHz, and learn the secret of the strike: it's safer now.
Gone are the antagonism, the lectures, the angry remarks, the disgusted voices that once were heard on the air traffic control (ATC) frequencies. Aviators and controllers are cooperating. It's even smoother than pilots who wanted the ATC strike expected.
Pilots wanted the ATC strike? Yes. PATCO's militancy had become more of a safety problem than its absence is proving to be. Here is why.
Controllers "separate" or "coordinate" traffic. Except in Hollywood, they do not "talk planes down." They have no direct navigational or operational responsibility. When they tell a pilot a certain course is clear of conflicting traffic, it remains the pilot's responsibility to determine that the same airspace does not contain other hazards -- for instance, mountains.
Part of becoming an instrument pilot is proving to the FAA that you can reject an unsafe ATC clearance. Recall TWA Flight 514, Washington's last major airline disaster. The piloit swooped into a mountain after ATC cleared him to make an approach. The only disagreement later was whether the controller should have shared even a small part of the blame.
In fact, ATC guarantees only that airspace is free of other traffic participating in the ATC system. Fewer than one-fourth of the 250,000 flights per day asked for instrument clearances from ATC before the strike.
Only 122 of 30,186 accidents from 1973 to 1979 involved controllers. All were caused by pilots improperly relying on controller instructions. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Ira Furman told me last week, "I can't conceive of an accident that could be attributed to a pilot rejecting or refusing a clearance."
After the invention of gyro instruments that permitted flight through clouds, a communication network became necessary so that airmen flying blind wouldn't bump into each other. This was the infant ATC. It started out as a guy with a phone and a clipboard. The word "clearance" itself is indicative -- not "instructions -- going "own navigation" and keeping "visual separation" -- to be the cautious alternative.
Unfortunately, it's an alternative that is not always practical. National Airport is a good example. Take away the 103 tower men and nine radar stations and replace them with one guy, a radio and a clipboard. Pilots might notice a little confusion, but there would be no serious problems -- during sunny weather. But if the weather got bad, that lone controller would be lucky to get one plane on or off the ground every seven minutes. Pilots could not realistically plan to fly to Washington except on sunny days.
That's what everyone was worried about when the strike started. Many pilots cancelled. Others planned alternate destinations. No one but the poor victims of PATCO propaganda was worried about safety.
The strike has already made a point that no number of government studies could have: the ATC system was grossly bloated. We all knew one controller wasn't enough to keep Washington National on the aviation map. But we found out we don't need 103 people either. With a disorganized one-third of the controllers left after the most serious disruption in aviation since World War II, the ATC system is moving 75 percent of the instrument traffic it used to handle. Fair weather traffic is almost unaffected.
Before the strike, the National Airport Tower was kept open 24 hours a day even though the airport itself is mostly closed at night. Pilots were being cleared to zig-zag along sector boundaries so that FAA records would give a false impression of high traffic density.
American taxpayers may be dismayed to learn they've been paying almost $1 billion a year for air traffic control services. PATCO says it will cost more to train new controllers. But Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis says you'll save $200 million after training because the new controllers will draw lower pay and there won't be as many of them.
From what I've heard on 120 mHz, I'll bet my billion on Lewis.