Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole said yesterday that she will add about 1,000 air traffic controllers and 500 safety inspectors to the Federal Aviation Administration "to make the safest system in the world even safer."
She made the announcement in the midst of the worst year in civil aviation history, with more than 1,430 deaths worldwide from nearly 20 accidents.
Many of her proposed increases in FAA personnel will have to run the Office of Management and Budget gantlet before being presented to Congress, but they come at a time when key members of Congress and the airline industry have been calling for additional controllers to handle the record number of flights and passengers now using the system.
Dole said she expects to add approximately 480 controllers in fiscal 1986, which begins Oct. 1, and a like number the following year. The FAA presently has about 14,000 controllers.
By the end of 1987 the agency hopes to have 15,000 controllers, about 1,000 fewer than when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization struck in 1981 and President Reagan fired 11,400. It takes two to three years to train a controller, and only 60 percent of the FAA's controllers are considered fully qualified.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of a House Public Works subcommittee that just issued a report saying controllers are overworked, under great stress and poorly led, said, "I'm glad that she's responding to the prodding from our committee." However, he said, because of aviation's growth, particularly at major airports, "16,000 was inadequate in 1981, given the workload and the equipment they were working with, and 14,000 is even more inadequate today."
Paul Ignatius, chairman and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association, the airline lobby that has been pushing for more controllers, praised Dole's action. "The augmentation of the air traffic control system . . . is an important step in helping to assure that the nation's aviation needs in the years immediately ahead will be met safely and efficiently," Ignatius said.
There has also been steady congressional pressure to increase the number of air safety inspectors to check both airlines and general aviation.
Dole said she will add 500 inspectors over three years, which would bring the total inspector force to about 2,100. At present, 674 inspectors concentrate on airlines and 936 work on general aviation.
In the early years of the Reagan administration, the airline inspector force was reduced just as the number of airlines had become the largest ever as a result of deregulation. Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Public Works aviation subcommittee, pushed through legislation restoring most of those early cuts. At 674, the number stands at about its 1981 level.
Mineta said last night, "I am always happy to get action from the secretary of transportation on behalf of aviation safety. I think it's a shell game, but I'll be interested to see how the numbers translate into actual safety gains."
There was some confusion over the number of controllers actually being added for fiscal 1986. DOT officials explained that 102 additional controllers already have been proposed in the House-approved fiscal 1986 appropriation, that they can create another 100 controllers by redesignating positions within the FAA and that they have about 300 "holdover" slots from fiscal 1985.
When Dole was pressed by reporters to be precise about the numbers, she said, "This is a management job that has to have some flexibility, now let's be reasonable about it. We're announcing some expansions here of 40 a month throughout fiscal year '86 and throughout fiscal year '87."
Dole made the announcements in a late-afternoon news conference that followed a Cabinet meeting where she briefed President Reagan and others on aviation safety.