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US asks to hire more air traffic controllers

With aviation safety a hot concern, the government is asking for 580 more air traffic controllers to help manage the nation's crowded airspace. Air traffic in 1988 and 1989 will be about double previous projections, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole said in a letter to Congress this week. Without more controllers, she said, the increased traffic would ``begin to create workload problems'' at airports and en route traffic centers.

Mrs. Dole is asking that $51.5 million be shifted from other Transportation Department accounts to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to add about 580 controllers and 375 managers, supervisors, and other personnel next year. Although the move was roundly applauded, it will not ease the workloads right away.

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``It takes now about 4.3 years to become a full-performance controller,'' says John Leyden, an FAA spokesman.

While the FAA says its total work force is already ahead of the level mandated by Congress, it is still short-staffed in the crucial area of full-performance controllers.

Partly because of this, critics say the FAA should move to limit the number of flights this summer because key air traffic centers, airports, and controllers are overworked.

``Additional controllers should reduce the concern,'' says Herbert McClure of the General Accounting Office. ``The problem remains, however, that based on what's known to us and the public, it's impossible to tell how many controllers the FAA actually needs.''

Mr. McClure points out that the FAA has a staffing standard designating the number and capacity of people it needs to operate a given facility. But since the firing of 11,400 controllers in 1981, the agency has operated in many cases below those levels, contending it could still do the job with fewer people.

``The fact is that the FAA simply hasn't established a standard that it believes,'' McClure says. ``It has really only been in the last several months that it's been clear to us why this issue has been so controversial and cloudy. This is because nobody has anything to go on because the FAA hasn't defined these things.''

As recently as March the Transportation Department insisted that only 225 more controllers were needed next year.

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