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Air traffic strike: questions remain

What exactly have been the "pros" and "cons" of the air controllers strike since it started one month ago on Aug. 3? This question was put to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, independent safety experts, members of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), airline executives, and controller supervisors.

These people -- including striking controllers -- agree that at least one positive thing has grown out of the strike: a growing government recognition of the importance of installing the best air control equipment possible.

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But big areas of controversy and disagreement remain, among them:

* Safety. Three federal investigations are studying the air control system, currently being manned by nonstriking controllers, supervisors, and more than 800 military controllers "on loan" to the nation's air traffic control centers. Additionally, Congress has scheduled three hearings in the coming weeks, all expected to probe safety questions.

The FAA says that in the month since the air strike began both "near misses" and controller "systems errors" have declined substantially compared with the same period last year. PATCO, the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association (CATCA), and the independent Aviation Safety Institute in Ohio dispute the FAA's figures, claiming that near misses and systems errors are in fact much more numerous than the FAA is reporting.

* Airline Employee layoffs and salary reductions. According to the Air Line Employees Association (ALEA) in Chicago, the nation's air carriers have laid off 19,268 employees since Aug. 1, with about 80 percent of the layoffs "directly connected" to the PATCO strike.

Eastern Airlines, for instance, has laid off 3,000 of the 42,000 employees it had prior to the strike, and its pilots have agree to a 10 percent pay cut. While the airlines contend the layoffs are necessary to deal with expected long-term restrictions, Quent David. ALEA executive director, says many carriers "are using the strike as an excuse" to improve their financial pictures.

* Flight reductions. New flight schedules are expected to be published Sept 8. Although many carriers report that their plane occupancy rate has increased dramatically in the past week, compared with what it was just after the strike started, officials expect roughly 25 percent fewer flights -- at least in so-called "peak" flying time periods, such as holidays, through next April.

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