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System still works year after air traffic controllers strike

The nation's air traffic control system appears to have weathered the massive firing one year ago of 11,400 striking controllers suprisingly well.

The consensus of most safety experts is that United States skyways are at least as safe as they were before the strike. No major accident involving a scheduled airliner has been directly attributed to an undermanned or underskilled controller staff. And many pilots have insisted from the start that the atmosphere of two-way communication between ground and air has actually improved.

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''Everything we hear and have heard from pilots has been that the system is operating safely,'' affirms an Air Line Pilots Association spokesman.

Noting that the ratio of reported ''near misses'' in relation to the number of planes flying is down, L. Homer Mouden, vice-president of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), says: ''In our estimation the system is as safe as it was before and probably a little safer.'' The foundation, which specializes in safety research, conducted a study for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) late last year on the same question.

Certainly the sudden and extensive loss of controllers required major adjustments all around.

By rallying nonstriking controllers, supervisors, retirees, and borrowed military personnel and working them longer hours, the FAA has managed to come up with a working controller force of 10,319, about two-thirds the size of the pre-strike staff. The agency claims even fewer will be needed once its 20-year computer modernization program is in place.

Many passengers have noticed changes - particularly in less frequent flights and more delays. The number of flights is still down by 16-17 percent and will not be fully back to normal, according to the FAA, until December 1983. But, according to Janet Aynes of the Dallas-based 110,000-member International Airline Passengers Association, air travelers willingly endure the inconvenience.

''Our members from the start wrote in to say they are firmly in support of the Reagan administration action and adamantly opposed to even the selective rehiring of controllers,'' she says.

Fired controllers had hoped their strike would prove them indispensable. It did not. Many poignant stories of the inability of many to find jobs and of ensuing marriage and financial difficulties have surfaced over the last year.

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Although an estimated two-thirds have found jobs of some kind, few have been able to match the average annual controller salary of $33,000 a year. About 200 are working abroad as controllers. Another 21 who under special circumstances did not return to their jobs by the administration's deadline have been rehired by the FAA. But the administration remains staunchly opposed to further rehiring.

Still, the debate as to whether or not that position is shortsighted continues to be a lively one. One House bill on Capitol Hill, which has already won committee approval, urges the selective rehiring of fired controllers and a return to normal of the air traffic system by next year. Support for it is fueled in part by persistent reports of slow progress and high failure rates among new recruits at the FAA's Oklahoma City training facility.

But to many onlookers, the most troubling aspect of the past year's experience is the fact that many of the same problems striking controllers complained of have reappeared. A number of controllers are working six-day weeks with minimal vacations. Some say working conditions are worse than ever.

A report issued a few months ago by a three-member task force commissioned by the Department of Transportation warns that stress and low morale remain key problems. It says that the FAA must drastically change its ''autocratic'' and ''insensitive'' management style by improving communications and paying more attention to human as well as technical capabilities in choosing and training managers.

The FAA has accordingly established a human relations task force and is setting up a four-year university program to train supervisors. But Dr. David Bowers of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, one of the authors of the task force study, is skeptical that FAA actions to date hit the key difficulty.

''It's a bedrock problem of management style that gets down to the way people deal with people,'' he explains. ''Most . . . supervisors and managers are military veterans and former controllers. Unfortunately many of them try to vector people just as they have airplanes, and people don't vector very well.''

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