Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) told Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole yesterday to stop using "doubletalk and petty technicalities" and take serious steps to improve air safety and reduce airline delays.
Dole, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee, said her agency has been straightforward about its safety program and has adjusted wisely during a period of rapid air traffic growth.
The crossfire between Dole and Lautenberg, chairman of the subcommittee, was the latest in a series of skirmishes between Congress and the department over aviation safety.
Many lawmakers have been resentful since the department's June 4 request to Congress to boost the number of air traffic controllers and supervisors by 955 by Sept. 30, 1988, the end of the 1988 fiscal year. Before that request, legislators had repeatedly urged the Federal Aviation Administration -- a branch of the Transportation Department -- to hire more controllers, only to be told they were not needed.
In addition, the FAA rejected a call in May by Jim Burnett, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board, to ease air traffic in the nation's busiest regions -- only to reverse itself in June and adopt steps to reduce the congestion.
"For too long now, we have been subjected to a deliberate and persistent campaign of doubletalk and petty technicalities on some vitally important issues," Lautenberg said. "We are tired of these word games and we hope they stop."
Dole replied that the department decided it needed more controllers after a three-month study revealed that air traffic would increase by 5 to 6 percent in 1988, not the 3 to 4 percent previously estimated.
"I don't want you to be surprised if we come back with another assessment," she said. "We're looking at traffic down the road. This is a dynamic situation."
The additional air traffic controllers would bring their number to 15,805. There were 16,375 controllers before their 1981 strike, in which President Reagan fired 11,345 of them for refusing to return to work.
Since the 1978 deregulation of the industry, the number of domestic airline passengers has grown from 278 million to 415 million last year.