Despite a carefully conceived emergency plan, Federal Aviation Administration officials readily admit that if today's (Aug. 3) scheduled strike of air traffic controllers comes off, US air traffic will be disrupted.
But FAA officials continue to vigorously insist that the nation's airways would not be shut down entirely -- even if no air traffic controllers showed up for work. While the number of FAA management personnel qualified to sit in as controller substitutes is much smaller -- 2,500 supervisers vs. 17,000 controllers -- the federal agency has some specific interim plans for coping with a walkout.
Reached at his home in Maryland, Dennis Feldman, the FAA's deputy director of public affairs, stressed that "there will be some disruption and some inconvenience -- no question about it. "Our overriding philosophy is that we will never allow more aircraft into the system that can be safely handled."
"The price you pay for congestion is delay," Mr. Feldman says. "And if it means keeping more planes on the ground to keep the situation safe, we'll do so."
One factor expected to make it easier: Summer air traffic has been light and many planes have been operating with only about half of their seats filled.
The FAA plan, which Feldman termed a "very good" one, is tightly geared to the level of controller absentism and airport capacity to handle flights. If only a small number of employees stay out, the FAA will use the metering technique it often uses to ease the flow of traffic during bad weather conditions or times of heavy congestion. It calls for keeping planes on the ground for longer periods until the system can handle them. For passengers, this would mean delays and some mergers of flights, but few cancellations. Most of the 14,200 daily flights would still operate.
At the other extreme, if none of the 15,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) show up for work, FAA supervisers and nonstriking controllers would take their places. Numerous flights would be canceled according to a priority plan that gives first preference to defense and medical flights and to flights covering more than 500 miles.
The FAA had a similar plan of action at the ready when a controllers strike was threatened for late June. At that time the majority of PATCO's members had not authorized a strike and union president Robert Poli at the last minute accepted a government offer of $40 million which kept the 40-hour workweek intact. A few days ago the union rejected that offer and negotiations began again.
Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis has said that union's latest demands, which PATCO puts at about $575 million, are "outrageous." In the talks that resumed Sunday afternoon, PATCO was expected to put its strongest emphasis on getting a shorter workweek. The government had agreed to pay tim e and half after 36 hours of work.