The Federal Aviation Administration, having fired its striking air traffic controllers, is pressing ahead with a $10 billion, 10-year retooling of the air control network that would automate many jobs the strikers held and replace aging computers.
FAA chief Lynn Helms and his staff began work on the program shortly after he took office in January, but the task has gained urgency as a result of the controllers' strike seven weeks ago. Its main effect, said Neal Blake, a senior FAA technical planner, has been to bring about a closer look at technology and concepts that could permanently reduce the controller work force.
Administration officials have said the strike has demonstrated that the system had 3,000 too many controllers and that 3,000 more could be cut through automation. The controllers' union, however, contends that the system was understaffed, even before the strike.
Helms will release a detailed proposal in November, Blake said. How much will be implemented is speculative, as successive sessions of Congress would have to approve funds. Still, some say, the strike may have made Congress more receptive to requests for money. "It certainly won't hurt us any," Blake said.
Meanwhile, aviation consultants, manufacturers and lobbyists are knocking on doors at FAA headquarters on behalf of their pet projects.
Among the changes being examined, Blake said, are:
* Replacement of 1960s-vintage computers at 20 traffic control centers with newer machines that would handle many jobs that are now manual.
* Computer analysis of individual flight plans to allow direct routing and major savings of fuel.
* Cockpit radar screens that would let pilots see oncoming traffic, and reduce the controllers' numbers and authority.
* A new generation of radar that would "interrogate" planes individually and give a clearer picture of sky traffic.
These are still proposals, many of them relying on concepts and technology that not everyone feels will perform as promised. But some aviation specialists hope that long-delayed decisions are near. (The Carter administration left behind unimplemented a 10-year plan of its own.)
"The strike has been a catalyst to get a lot of this going," said an Air Line Pilots Association official who deals with the FAA.
Many aviation specialists feel that politics and prestige will figure heavily in the decisions, in particular questions of radar in the cockpit.
The Air Line Pilots Association has sought radar screens in the cockpits, arguing they would allow safer separation of airplanes as the nation's airways become more crowded -- the FAA expects a 40 percent increase in the 1980s. The screens also would increase the authority of pilots, who feel controllers have too much power over how they fly their planes.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the striking union, opposes letting pilots make control decisions. "Too many cooks spoil the broth," said union spokesman Pat Doyle, and would result in dangerous confusion aloft. It could also reduce the controller rolls and union influence. The FAA, meanwhile, had tended to side with controllers on this issue -- with critics saying the agency is wary of seeing its ground empire dismantled.
The one party excluded from current discussions is PATCO, which the administration is seeking to decertify. PATCO continues to say that the control system is unsafe as long as strikers are away from their jobs.
Many of the proposals would require new computers at the 20 enroute centers, which control planes outside the vicinity of airports. "Enroute facilities are basically 1960s technology that's been stretched and stretched," said a congressional aide who follows aviation. Replacing them with the faster, larger capacity machines the FAA wants could cost up to $2 billion.
Much of the FAA's plans also hinge on what technicians call "Mode S," a new system for ground-air communications. As billed, it would give controllers a clearer picture of where planes are in the skies, allowing closer spacing, and would send electronically instructions that now go by voice.
Current radar can give an incorrect picture of the airways. Radar waves strike all planes in a vicinity at once, causing their on-board transmitters to sing out their planes' flight data to ground stations in unison. That can create garbles. Mode S would give each plane its own code, so that radar could "interrogate" planes individually, yielding more accurate responses.
Mode S could also revolutionize ground-air communications, its proponents say. Currently pilots and controllers converse by voice, an imperfect medium that is prone to distortion and miscomprehension. Using Mode S the controller could punch instructions into a computer, to be transmitted directly to a cathode ray tube in the plane, using the plane's individual Mode S code.
Mode S and display screens might also be used to plug the cockpit into the ground radar network and show the pilot other planes around him. Pilots are now effectively blind after takeoff and rely on controllers to spot oncoming planes on radar screens on the ground and route them around each other safely.
Glen Gilbert, an aviation consultant who headed the air traffic control system when it was founded in the 1930s, is among those who favor this increased responsibility for pilots. He is about to propose to Helms far-reaching changes in traffic control that would limit controllers to "strategic" direction of air routes while pilots with cockpit screens made the "tactical" decisions of course changes needed to maintain safe separation.
Mode-S equipment might come into use in the 1980s. Several years further down the road could be a computer software innovation known as AERA, Automated EnRoute Air traffic control. It would help eliminate diversions now flown to satisfy air control needs.
At a flight's start, AERA would devise a direct and fuel-efficient flight plan, projecting ahead -- across the length of the country if necessary -- to ensure it would not pass too close to other planes scheduled to be in the air. It would compute fuel-saving ascent and descent paths, monitor the flight's progress and devise corrections if it strayed off course.
Other modernization proposals include automated flight information stations that pilots would call to hear weather reports by synthesized voices; more computer display of information to controllers, eliminating jobs for controllers who tear and arrange paper printouts; better weather forecasting; and new control towers.
Helms already is publicly committed to installing collision-avoidance warning devices in the cockpits of planes. The FAA predicts they will be in use by the mid-1980s.