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Billions Unspent : Answers to Jet Age Jam Are in a Stall

November 17, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL and DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writers

It does not take an aeronautics degree to recognize the problem. Just read those TV monitors at the airport, the ones the airlines call "flight information display systems."

On a typical evening at Chicago's O'Hare International, for example, roughly 70 takeoffs and landings were scheduled between 6 o'clock and 6:15.

Under the best of conditions, that is about twice as many flights as O'Hare's six runways can manage in that time. When the weather is bad or the airport is under repair, the number of flights the O'Hare tower can handle in 15 minutes can drop by 20, so two-thirds of the scheduled flights--and many subsequent flights, as well--will be delayed.

The grim message to be read between the blinking lines on the monitors is this: The nation's aviation system is pressed to the limit.

High Rate of Tardiness

That impression gained credence last week, when the Department of Transportation's first public rating of airline promptness showed that nearly one in four domestic flights in September was late. Over the past five years, in fact, delays due to heavy traffic, bad weather or controller equipment malfunctions have jumped 70%. More worrisome, pilots report drastic increases in the number of "near misses," which were up 50% in the first nine months of this year.

It is difficult to see how things could be otherwise: In the last four years, the number of flights has risen 25% while the system for handling that traffic has, if anything, deteriorated. No new airports have been completed. There are fewer air traffic controllers to police the system and new computers expected to ease the strain are years behind schedule, so they are forced to rely on older, less reliable equipment.

'Crisis in Confidence'

Even Federal Aviation Administrator T. Allan McArtor concedes a public "crisis in confidence."

Those responsible in government and industry are scrambling for answers, and most of them are trying to find some way of easing the air traffic strain.

Among the proposals:

--Limit the number of flights allowed at peak hours. Most in the industry oppose this as a return to regulation, but the House already has approved a bill that would allow the secretary of transportation to restrict the number of flights at 42 major airports.

--Ease congestion with new flight patterns that reroute planes and have more altitude levels. Airlines, acting on their own initiative, have done this at a few big airports such as Chicago's, but they complain that the FAA has not done enough to employ the techniques elsewhere.

--Speed up the hiring and training of air traffic controllers. Most observers, however, believe that the fastest way of getting more controllers--rehiring those who were fired for striking illegally--is politically unlikely.

--Force the federal government to release nearly $5.6 billion frozen in trust funds for budgetary reasons and use the money to buy new, stop-gap equipment and expand the capacity of existing airports. Recently, the House narrowly rejected a bill that would have started this process.

At the same time, the Reagan Administration's widely perceived shortcomings in management of the deregulated airline industry have prompted a general soul-searching about how best to monitor the nation's skies.

Congress is so troubled about the matter that it has forced an apparently reluctant Reagan White House to appoint a study commission. The independent Air Safety Commission is considering, among other things, making the FAA an independent agency with budgetary freedom and an administrator who would serve a fixed term of years, as does the director of the FBI.

"When the average traveler goes to the ticket counter and finds that the plane is delayed an hour," said commission Chairman John M. Albertine, "his perception is that the system is falling apart and that nudniks are running it."

Results of Deregulation

Such perceptions began in 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, and have mushroomed since the Reagan Administration fired 11,500 striking air controllers 1981.

When it took that step, the Administration expected that a $12-billion computerization of the air traffic system, called the National Airspace System Plan, would soon make many of the fired controllers unnecessary. The 10-year NAS Plan was supposed to be fully installed by 1992, but a General Accounting Office report shows it has fallen perhaps six years behind schedule and it will be at least another decade before it is fully in place.

These delays and other technology have left the busier system to rely on aging equipment. The 1960s-vintage radar equipment used at the Los Angeles Terminal Radar Approach Control Center to monitor approaches to the north side of Los Angeles International Airport went down 16 times last year. The 1970s-era gear that monitors the airport's south side went down six times.

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