Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers hired to replace those fired by President Reagan in 1981 think that they are overworked and feel at times that air traffic is "exceeding the capacity of the human-technical system," a task force has found.
Further, the task force said, insensitive FAA management and the stress of dealing with heavy traffic have increased the controllers' "burnout" rate and resulted in overall working conditions "as bad, or perhaps a bit worse" than those that existed in 1981 when the 11,400 controllers went on strike.
The task force based its conclusions on interviews with controllers, supervisors and managers at 14 of the busiest air-traffic facilities, including the regional center at Leesburg, during the peak of last summer's highly publicized flight delays. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the report.
The same task force performed a similar study after the 1981 strike and was hired to revisit the scene by Donald D. Engen almost immediately after he became the FAA's new administrator in April.
Controller morale problems have continued, the report said, despite top management's emphasis on improved human relations and the establishment of human-relations committees at air-traffic facilities.
With some exceptions, the report said, the human-relations program is "viewed as inconsequential, as largely slogans and superficial window dressing."
A psychologically based "burnout/bounceback" index shows that the overall burnout rate for controllers has nearly doubled since 1981 and that the burnout rate for management and supervisors is, "if anything, higher than that for controllers," the report said.
The task force was headed by Lawrence M. Jones, a Wichita human-relations consultant whose 1981 report sparked management emphasis on improving relations with controllers. The second Jones report said quite bluntly that the first report's warnings were not being heeded.
Engen said that the situation is improving "each month that goes by" and that "the quality of managers and supervisors in the air-traffic service is dramatically improved."
The FAA had about 15,000 controllers before the 1981 strike. At the end of last October, it had 13,608 and was building toward a top of 14,306. However, not all working controllers are fully trained, and many who are spend much of their time training others.
Engen stressed that the FAA's first priority is operating a safe system and said his agency was doing that.
The FAA, the report said, "is dealing with a very difficult situation which, if not handled forcefully and effectively, will lead to problems of the type that have proven to be so excessively costly to the nation over the last 15 years," a period that has seen two nationwide controller strikes and several intentional slowdowns.
The task force went as far as sugggesting that legislation might be necessary so top FAA management would have flexibility to "make appropriate reassignments."
"I don't need that," Engen said. "I can control that myself." He has made several management changes in the air-traffic service in recent months, and others are pending.
Psychologist David G. Bowers, a member of the task force, said in an interview that the FAA had "a large number of managers who are personally very committed to a very autocratic style." He said new managers tended to be selected in the image of their predecessors.
He was asked whether private industry could do better, because there are periodic suggestions that the federal government get out of the air-traffic control business. Many private businesses, he said, have solved similar human-relations problems. But, he said, "if you simply take the FAA as it stands and call it FAA Inc., I don't think it would make any difference at all."
Bowers also said that, to ease the overwork problem, "I don't see any other alternative" to rehiring some of the strikers who were fired. The report does not make such a recommendation, and Engen said yesterday, "That's not in the cards."
Rehiring former controllers is not as potent an issue among controllers who did not strike as the FAA has suggested. Few controllers mentioned the subject during the interviews, the report said.
Those who did were mostly older controllers and supervisors, a majority of whom "favored [rehiring] as an immediate source of badly needed skills," the report said.