The first wave of the new air traffic controllers hired by the FAA after the 1981 strike has reached "fully qualified" status, meaning they are considered capable of working on their own.
At April's end, the FAA had 12,292 controllers on duty and, for only the third month since the strike, had more "fully qualified" controllers than those in training, 6,467 to 5,825. About 3,000 supervisors and 37 military controllers were still helping to handle traffic.
The air traffic control school in Oklahoma City has cut back from two shifts to one because, in some cases, it has produced more trainees than field facilities can handle.
Supervisors are continuing to train new controllers, which they did rarely before the strike. They and senior controllers complained in interviews about the training burden, even though a recent special pay bill in Congress gives them extra money for training.
With overtime and training pay, some senior controllers and supervisors at busy facilities are making $75,000 to $80,000 annually, well above the normal civil-service ceiling of $63,800.
FAA Administrator J. Lynn Helms has also ordered that all controllers receive at least two weeks of vacation this summer, and most facilities can meet that.
As the FAA rebuilds the air traffic system, it is changing the longtime practice that all controllers be qualified to interpret radar although many jobs in air traffic control do not require that skill.
The FAA is building a three-track system of radar controllers, nonradar controllers and flight-data processors. Radar controllers will receive higher ratings and bigger salaries. Nonradar controllers and flight-data processors will act as assistants or do jobs such as working in the glass-enclosed top room of the tower, the cab, where control is by sight instead of by radar.
This is a controversial subject with the FAA's field managers, who say they will have less flexibility in shifting people from one job to another. "This is going to create a caste system in my tower," one manager grumbled.
Raymond J. Van Vuren, director of FAA's air traffic service, said opposition to the program will decrease as it is better understood.
"The problem you've got is that everybody thinks they're a super controller, and not everybody is . . . ," he said. "Only the good people, the high-quality people . . . should be radar controllers."
New controllers, according to facility managers interviewed, are a little better educated and a little less angry than their predecessors.
"They're a different breed of cat," said Charles Stafford, manager of the New York subregional facility. "They've held jobs before; they know the real world; they know you don't get something for nothing. They enjoy working."