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FAA would resume full flight schedule; but caution is urged

Is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) trying to do too much too soon in restoring air traffic to normal levels by the end of 1983? The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) insists the answer is ''yes'' - unless some major problems in the current system are resolved first.

The board's plea to ''go slower,'' made in an 82-page report issued this month, is supported by several other organizations interested in aviation safety. A House public works and transportation subcommittee has scheduled hearings on the controversial topic for June 7 and 8.

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It has been almost two years since the bulk of the nation's air-traffic control force was fired after an illegal strike. To fill the 11,400-employee gap , the FAA put to work everyone qualified and available, from supervisors to military controllers, managing traffic. It also revved up training activities to two shifts a day at its Oklahoma City controller academy. To meet the emergency, traffic levels were cut by one-third.

The FAA insisted from the start of the rebuilding process that it was overstaffed by 3,000 controllers and could do the job with a staff of 14,000 rather than the 17,000 it once had. Now, says FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman, the FAA manpower situation is ''close to normal.'' Only 30 of the 800 military controllers first recruited are still aboard, and the Oklahoma academy in two weeks will go back to one training shift a day. ''We'll recruit for attrition only,'' Mr. Feldman says. Though controllers in busy centers such as New York and Chicago still work a six-day week, Feldman says the average controller now works only 41 hours a week.

Thus the FAA intends to continue its plan to lift all restrictions, imposed since the strike, on traffic at the nation's 22 busiest airports (limits have already been lifted at six) and restore the prestrike traffic volume by the end of 1983.

The NTSB views the FAA timing as ambitious. The board report notes that half of the 12,000 controllers now working are trainees and that many others are supervisors who should be monitoring rather than doing the job themselves. The board's report urges that flights not be increased until enough controllers have adequate training and experience to handle the job during a normal workweek and until supervisors return to their usual chores. By the FAA timetable, that ideal situation will not prevail until mid-1984.

In its report, the board also issued its second call - this time in an ''urgent'' context - for the FAA to develop a system to monitor and reduce stress and fatigue experienced by controllers as the system is rebuilt. But Feldman insists that the agency has been trying without success to do just that for many years. Its most recent in-hand report, from Boston University Medical School, observes that after 30 years of research, no one has yet managed to come up with a broadly accepted definition of stress.

Though the NTSB recommendations are not binding on the FAA, support for them from other organizations could strengthen their impact.

''We're on a collision course between the FAA's unwavering commitment to increasing traffic and removing restrictions . . . and having to rely on a fatigued and inexperienced work force,'' says Matthew Finucane, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. ''It takes a lot of courage to say, 'Restrict traffic increases until supervisors can supervise again,' regardless of the economic consequences, and the board deserves a lot of credit.''

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''The FAA has done a good job of keeping the number of planes evenly matched with the control system's capabilities, but the safety margin would be further enhanced if the agency were to follow the NTSB recommendations,'' is the cautious assessment of the Air Line Pilots Association's John Mazor.

''I don't want to sound alarmist, but the FAA can't keep lifting restrictions and pumping more planes into the system indefinitely without some consequences, '' says Mike Fermon, treasurer of the 2,000- member US Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a nonprofit labor group affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

No accident since the strike has been specifically attributed to the controller training or workload situation. FAA spokesman Feldman calls that ''the best empirical evidence'' available that the system is operating safely.

But there is increasing concern, voiced by the NTSB and others, that ''operational errors,'' the FAA's term for those times when planes pass closer to one another than regulations permit, are occurring more often and that their numbers may be vastly underreported. The lack of precise data on that subject is one reason the NTSB suggests the current margin of safety may not be as wide as it should be and can't be accurately measured.

For the last seven years the FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have had a joint error-reporting system that guarantees the caller anonymity. But even NASA suspects that not nearly as many incidents are being reported as do occur. The FAA is currently developing a computer program that will record near-misses and other violations of agency rules so that similar situations can be analyzed and corrected.

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