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Shouldn't Rehire Air Controllers

May 04, 1986

I feel compelled to respond to a column by Harry Bernstein ("Reagan Should Rehire Air Controllers," March 26).

With each succeeding month, the Federal Aviation Administration is qualifying between 150 and 200 new full-performance-level controllers. Last year--with a 3% increase in air traffic--we had 25% fewer controller errors and 18% fewer scheduled airline delays. Furthermore, air traffic control was not a causal factor in the major airline accidents last year.

The record shows that air safety is, in fact, improving. In 1985, commuter airlines and general aviation had the safest years ever. For U.S. scheduled and unscheduled air carriers--which did have a high number of fatalities last year--the overall trend is definitely in the direction of greater safety.

President Reagan's decision to fire the striking controllers was right in principle and right in practical terms.

By striking, the former controllers broke the law and broke faith with the American people, raising questions about whether their attitudes are compatible with the character traits the system requires. Some observers suggest a "selective" rehiring of these controllers, but current law does not allow such an approach. Congress would have to provide a legal foundation for such a selection.

Furthermore, substantial reorientation would be needed before any returning controllers could be recertified. Air traffic control skills are difficult to maintain, even for people working regularly. If a controller transfers, for example, from Dallas to Denver, the FAA expects certification at the new tower to require a year or more of on-the-job training. This leads us to expect that more training would be needed for people who have been away almost five years. Air traffic control is challenging work, a concern reflected in discussions of controller stress. Civil Service laws provide early retirement options for controllers after 25 years of service or at age 50 with 20 years of service. The controllers who struck averaged 35 years old. Today, their average age is almost 40. Thus, even those who might be recertified might not be with the agency for long. In addition, FAA records show that the greatest number of operational errors occur during the first year on the job, and among controllers who have been on the job for more than 20 years. Rehiring former controllers could expose the air traveling public to risks by placing the flying public's safety in the hands of trainees with reflexes impaired by age and by four years away from the job.

Rehiring the fired controllers would not address today's critical safety concerns. Rather than diverting resources to refighting settled issues, the public safety requires us to keep our focus firmly on the future of aviation. Both principle and practical concerns support current policy.


Administrator, FAA

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