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Controlling the Skies

September 07, 1986

It will take months for investigators to close the books on the collision between an Aeromexico jetliner and a private plane over Cerritos last Sunday that killed at least 70 people. No one knows yet what the conclusion of that investigation will be, but it is apparent that it will proceed in several directions at once. One issue that should receive careful scrutiny is staffing levels in air-traffic control towers.

As The Times reported Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration's regional control facility at El Toro, which tracks aircraft on their way to airports through 3,000 square miles south of Los Angeles, has 19 controllers doing the work of 36. One question investigators must answer is whether the center is typical of the national system or whether its problems are unique.

The investigators may also have better luck getting the whole story from the agency than reporters had. Shortly after the disaster, the agency said that Orange County facilities had a full complement of personnel and that none was working overtime. Later in the week, in response to direct questions, the answer was that they thought the questions related to John Wayne Airport. El Toro was a different story.

At El Toro, shortages of qualified controllers mean that overtime hours for the people at the radar screens have increased tenfold since late last year, from an average of 200 a quarter to 2,100 for the quarter that ended Sept. 1. Marion Davis, manager of El Toro's Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, said the overtime represented an inconvenience for controllers, but not a safety problem for pilots and passengers who fly through their region. So far, so good. But Davis also said it will be months before the agency can train new controllers to fill in the gaps. Can controllers keep up those work hours indefinitely without wear and tear that would turn an inconvenience into a safety problem?

That, of course, raises still another question that the National Transportation Safety Board will want to examine closely. It has already been reported that at the time of the tragedy, a controller at Los Angeles International Airport was doing not only his own job but also work that should have been handled by a second controller. The controller did not see the small plane on his radar screen before it collided with the jetliners. Would a second controller have seen it?

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