On the eve of the peak summer travel season, Deputy Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley yesterday attacked critics for confusing and scaring travelers with "loose, quick, glib" answers to questions about air safety.
"What's being said by a few folks who want to get on television and the front pages is scary," Burnley said. "It also is gibberish, nonsense and untrue."
Burnley and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, clashed sharply in a debate on CBS News' "Face the Nation" about air traffic controller training and staffing and the Federal Aviation Administration's plans to handle increased summer traffic. The FAA is part of the Transportation Department.
Lautenberg accused the FAA of a "stubbornness and unwillingness" to recognize a problem with safety.
The FAA last week rejected a set of recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that the FAA reduce air traffic at overcrowded airports this summer because of an increase in the number of controller errors and reports of near-collisions -- both on the ground and in the air.
Burnley said the FAA has a new computer that can monitor air traffic as it moves through the country's 652 "sectors" of airspace, but Lautenberg interjected: "That system is show business."
Several times during their exchange, Burnley quieted the senator, telling Lautenberg he had not finished speaking yet. He accused Lautenberg of playing "fast and loose with the figures" when Lautenberg suggested the FAA was making little progress in training new controllers or acquring new computer equipment.
Burnley said the FAA "agrees" with the safety board's recommendations, but has no need to act on them because it already reduces air traffic by using a managing system called "flow control." The system, which requires planes to be delayed at the departure point until there is room to land at the destination, was criticized as incomplete by the safety board when it issued its recommendations.
James E. Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, also appeared on the CBS program and reiterated his earlier assertions that air safety could erode this summer unless traffic is reduced. "I want to make very clear I think at this time, there is cause for alarm," he said.
Burnett said he is worried that the FAA has been allowing too many airplanes to circle over airports, instead of delaying them on the ground. He said airborne holding helps reduce delays, but it increases controllers' workloads.
Hank Duffy, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the chief worry of pilots is that they will be involved in a midair collision."That tells me they think the air traffic control system is breaking down too often," said Duffy, who appeared on ABC News's "This Week With David Brinkley."
FAA chief Donald D. Engen, who also appeared on Brinkley's show, cautioned against mixing the issue of airline service with safety. He added that the only way to ensure a completely safe system is to lock up all the planes. "No way can I assure you there will not be a tragic accident in the sky," he said. "My job is to assure procedures are followed."