The president of the 33,000-member Air Line Pilots Association, responding to reports that some pilots feel the emergency air traffic system is unsafe, reaffirmed yesterday that his group has confidence in the system and that many pilots find the skies even safer than before the controllers' strike.
"I can say without equivocation the air traffic control system in this country is safe," Capt. John J. O'Donnell said. "If it were not safe, we would be the first to speak out."
The association's executive board met in emergency session Tuesday and approved a resolution declaring the system safe, he said.
Association pilots had reported only about 17 incidents of airplanes coming too close together since the strike began, less than in the same period last year, O'Donnell said.
He also strongly criticized Robert Poli, president of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), for spreading allegations of safety violations and for harming the public well-being in attempts to settle the union's dispute with the government.
O'Donnell asked that the administration reopen efforts toward a settlement that would reinstate the controllers. But he said he believed that Poli and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis could never negotiate together again and that other means toward a solution must be pursued.
O'Donnell's statements came after The Washington Post disclosed Tuesday that internal memos from a pilots' association committee had reported "a general deterioration in the ATC system." On Tuesday, the government announced that two major studies would be conducted on air safety.
At a news conference yesterday, O'Donnell said the memos were based on preliminary data collected by a special air control committee monitoring the system. The group submitted data on "what was wrong with the system" to O'Donnell for evaluation, and the source of about three-fourths of the submissions was found to be PATCO, which might be biased, he said.
Moreover, the committee's memos were rebutted by reports from association pilots, O'Donnell said. More than 1,000 have telephoned the union to praise the system. Many pilots have reported it is functioning more smoothly than before the strike, and only two criticized it, he said.
In other developments yesterday, PATCO president Poli told reporters he is maintaining contact through intermediaries with persons in the administration. He declined to provide names.
Transportation Department press aide Linda Gosden said she did not know whom Poli was referring to and underlined the administration's refusal to reopen talks with PATCO, most of whose members are being fired. "Our focus is on rebuilding the system and working with people who are on the job," Gosden said.
Poli has predicted repeatedly that the rebuilding effort will fail and that the government will be forced to reopen contract talks that broke off Aug. 3, the day the strike began. At another meeting with reporters yesterday, he said a strike settlement could come within a month.
Poli expressed willingness to resign if his presence obstructs a settlement. But Gosden said Poli's position in the union, which the government is attempting to decertify, is "not a factor."
Poli also said he is not surprised that pilots had not supported PATCO. Pilots, he said, resent being directed from the ground and controllers' attempts to move toward pilots' higher salary levels.
The Justice Department said yesterday that federal grand juries have brought indictments against 11 controllers in the Dallas and Indianapolis areas for alleged violations of laws prohibiting strikes by federal employes. A total of 75 such indictments around the country are being sought, and more are expected to be obtained today, a department spokesman said. The controllers face as much as a year and a day in jail and/or fines of as much as $1,000. The proceedings are separate from efforts to punish PATCO members for violating antistrike injunctions obtained by the government.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration continued to report that traffic in and out of airports covered by "flow control" measures is holding firm at about 75 percent of normal levels.