WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration came under renewed Senate fire today for moving too slowly to improve the nation's air traffic control system, but the federal aviation chief said improvements are being made despite a crush of air travelers.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, said the government was moving at a "glacial pace" in the face of increasing collisions, traffic controllers' errors and delays.
"We can prod. We can cajole," Lautenberg said of Congress' role. "But we can't provide the aggressive and innovative executive leadership that it will take for us to get ahead in this ball game."
Donald Engen, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said air travel problems are caused by an increased number of passengers, growing airline competition and an unusual amount of bad weather last year. He said there were almost 35% more severe thunderstorms in 1986 than the previous year.
Operational Errors Up
Engen conceded that operational errors at air control centers had increased by 7% between October, 1986, and March over the same period a year earlier. But he said the government has taken "aggressive actions" to reverse that trend, including the hiring of more air traffic controllers.
He said that as of April, there were 15,132 air controllers working--above the target of 15,000 set by the government for the end of this year.
A survey conducted by the General Accounting Office was presented at the hearing showing that the number of fully qualified air traffic controllers at many airports and control centers has actually dropped since 1981.
Of the 16 air control centers and 27 airports studied, investigators found that the volume of traffic has grown since the controllers' strike of 1981 at all but four of the facilities.
During the same period, the number of controllers has shrunk at every site studied, the report said.
"We actually have fewer air traffic controllers than we assumed, and their workload is heavier," said Lautenberg, who requested the study. "Air traffic safety is suffering not in a few cases, but across the country."
Controller Errors Down
The GAO report also said that controller errors have decreased at 26 of the 43 sites and that the FAA is making progress restoring controllers to their full ranks.
The GAO's investigation found that declines in staff have been accompanied by massive overtime and increased use of supervisors for routine duty.
Of 6,311 controllers authorized at the facilities checked, only 3,802 positions are filled, the report said.
Boston's Logan Airport has seen the largest drop in fully trained controllers, down 58%. The largest traffic increase, a 58% upsurge at Newark, N.J., International Airport, was accompanied by a 10% drop in controllers.