The air traffic controllers have long maintained that safety lies at the heart of their demands for higher pay and easier working conditions. Within the last year, two congressional committees have held hearings on air traffic safety. Both concluded that there may well be serious deficiencies in the quality of the equipment used to monitor air traffic and in the methods used by the Federal Aviation Administration to check on its reliability. Following are excerpts from the report by the House subcommittee on government and transportation:
Allegations taht the computerized radar data processing [RDP] on which air traffic controllers rely is not sufficiently reliable and may be getting worse instead of better raised the specter of an increase in mid-air collisions. FAA employees who operate the system made a number of strong criticisms, including:
The automated data-processing equipment is much more prone to failures -- termed outages -- than FAA management is willing to admit, and this does pose a threat to safety.
The computer performance data on outages used by FAA management does not accurately describe the reality of the situation controllers experienced with the equipment.
Presumably based on this unreliable data, the agency has made budget, staffing, procurement and planning decisions that are making air traffic control problems worse.
The FAA repeatedly denied that these allegations were true. Then, under the threat of a funding cutoff by the appropriations committees, it established a plan to correct these problems.
The committee's investigation revealed that the criticisms of the FAA's air traffic control automation system were not without foundation.
One of the fundamental complaints by both controllers and technicians was that the national reporting systems for gathering data on RDP equipment interruptions did not accurately reflect the actual performance of the equipment. . . . The net result alleged was a situation in which FAA headquarters was presented with a rosy view by its management information system while controllers and technicians in the field faced a grimmer reality of frequent equipment failures that didn't get management attention. . . .
A general and pervasive criticism of FAA by its employee organizations is simply that the agency has such poor management employee relations that sincere and serious safety concerns may not be heard or addressed.
Agency employees indicated that they perceived that internal avenues for rasing problems, such as the Unsatisfactory Condition Report system or facility safety committees, were often dead ends, used not to resolve problems but to "keep the lid on." In some cases, these internal systems were used for punitive purposes, to identify and thwart individuals who complained. . . .
Air traffice controllers expressed not just concern and disagreement but outrage that during the 1976 to 1980 period when they estimated traffic had increased roughly 38 percent, the number of air traffic controllers had actually remained static. The result was described in one controller's testimony as a situation where some positions were being "bludgeoned" by the traffic load foisted on them. The anger over this situation was rubbed raw by the fact the FAA had substantially increased its supervisory staffing during the same period. . . .
The major criticism by representatives of FAA technicians and specialists who maintain the massive complex of air traffic control equipment was what they viewed as unfair and self-defeating pressure on them to under-report the true status of malfunctions and failures. Mixed in with this criticism was the serious allegation that agency sueprvisors or managers were altering actual equipment maintenance logs to change the coding of corrective maintenance to the more favorable, less scrutinized category of scheduled maintenance. . . .
The final breach in the dike of the committee's reservoir of credulity was made by two documents from within Faa. They clearly indicated just how meaningless the carefully crafted definitions in FAA's performance evaluations can be and just how open the system is to abuse.
Both of these documents are monthly reliability reports for 1980. . . . One [was] for distance measuring equipment and the other for a very high frequency omnidirectional range located together at Ponce, Puerto Rico. Both reports show these vital navigational equipment items to have been 96.8 percent reliable for the month of July 1980.
The committee was informed that, in fact, both these facilities were completely destroyed by a fire bomb in July 1980.
Careful examination of the instructions in FAA Order 6040 for completing the monthly reliability reports reveals that the dedicated civil servant who completed these two reports followed his instructions to the letter. Since the facilities had (and probably could only have) one unscheduled outage for the month, albeit that one outage involving total destruction, he faithfully entered "one" into the conversion tables supplied by headquarters to derive a reliability figure of 96.8 percent. No false entry was made. No rule violated. The system looked great. Except that it wasn't even there, much less working.