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FAA eases controller workload; Delays, fewer flights likely through winter

The nation's air travelers can expect the current holding pattern of fewer flights and more on-ground delays to continue through most of the winter. But they may take some comfort in the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing it all in the name of safer skies and a needed lighter load for the estimated 10,000 controllers now manning airport towers and regional traffic centers.

According to spotchecks by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), current controller morale is high. But the FAA, prompted in part by NTSB warnings about overworking controllers over the long run, says it wants to cut back the average work week to 40 hours as quickly as possible and start giving vacations.

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Thus, the airline industry is being asked to trim the total number of its flights by about 5 percent by Dec. 1. Though the airlines were initially asked to cut back flights for a national average of 78 percent of the prestrike flight levels, the total had gradually crept up to about 83 percent.

Why? ''It was probably our own euphoria more than anything,'' says FAA spokesman Jerry Lavey. ''They'd say, 'Can we have another flight?' and we'd say, 'Sure.' ''

As of last week private and business planes and air taxis were asked to join in the flight cutbacks. A new quota system requires them, just as their commercial counterparts, to file a formal request for controller help before takeoff if the pilot expects to fly in en route controlled airspace.

Just how well and how effectively this effort to balance the burden will work , however, remains to be seen. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association was reportedly deluged with phone call complaints during the first few days of the new plan.

The trim in commercial and private aviation schedules could conceivably cut back on travel delays but the FAA is making no promises. An agency spokesman notes that delays of 30 minutes or more have averaged better than 600 a day so far this month, a tenfold increase over the daily average last October.

The Reagan administration, which has steadily turned back all suggestions that some striking controllers be rehired, has now granted working controllers the same pay increase they offered the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) before the union struck Aug. 3.

Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis has predicted the system will be able to return to prestrike levels of operation in a couple of years with a force of 14, 000 controllers.

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That would be 3,000 fewer controllers working than before the strike. Though a recent House Post Office and Civil Service Committee report has criticized the FAA for being overoptimistic in its estimates of the speed and completeness of recovery, the FAA insists it is doing all it can to get as many qualified workers aboard as speedily as possible. Its Oklahoma City training academy, for instance, now operates around the clock in two shifts.

One change aimed at speeding up initial training: postponement of the radar portion of the course (often not used for a couple of years anyway) from the introductory program at the academy until closer to the time when the knowledge will be put to use.

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