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Consumer Report : High Price of Air Safety

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President Bush has presented a budget to Congress for fiscal 1990 in which he proposes to act on certain transportation issues, but offers few specifics.

He wants the Federal Aviation Administration budget to be raised--as did his predecessor, Ronald Reagan--to $7.7 billion. But he doesn’t provide many clues about what he’d like that money to be used for.

And he pledged to fulfill his obligation to provide the best and safest airways system. But again, without filling in too many details.

Here’s a suggestion that could go a long way to achieving that goal: Bring back as many of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members as are willing to return to the control tower.

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Remember Patco? The union called its members off their jobs in a dispute over wages and conditions during President Reagan’s first term and found themselves out of work . . . permanently.

Reagan fired them on the grounds that government employees may not strike. He then had the union disbanded.

Air-Traffic in a Jam

For years since, the nation has struggled to bring its air-traffic control system abreast of the growth in the number of airplanes, not necessarily with great success, either. Supervisory personnel and non-strikers kept us afloat in the months immediately after the firing.

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Then, newly trained controllers--some would say hastily trained--began to fill positions. But there is widespread agreement that we need many more, and better, control-tower operatives than we can hope to put to work under present conditions.

What would it take to get Patco members back? A presidential pardon? A letter of invitation? Whatever is required, the gesture could pay dividends in terms of air safety.

Many of the sacked controllers wouldn’t come back, at any price. They have made lives for themselves away from the nerve-jangling pressure of juggling 400-passenger jumbo jets in crowded air spaces.

Many would be disinclined to undergo the inevitable period of reorientation that their return to work would require. Or unable, at this late stage, to requalify for the job.

Enormous Savings

But hundreds, maybe even thousands, of experienced Patco people might consider a return to the towers. And at enormous savings to the nation in terms of training.

Of course, warm bodies alone won’t solve our air-traffic problems. Our airports need technology, computers, windshear detectors and numerous electronic or mechanical devices that would upgrade our handling of planes and passengers.

Therein lies another tale--the one concerning the Airport and Airways Trust Fund.

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President Bush might want to think about separating the money in that fund, now pushing $10 billion, from the general fund.

All it’s doing right now is making the budget deficit look a little better. What it was intended for--the only thing it was intended for--was to provide exactly the kind of airport and airways enhancements that are so glaringly needed.

Bickering Over Money

As long as that money, which comes from the 8% tax we pay on domestic tickets, is subject to partisan Appropriations and Aviation Committee bickering, it will never be properly used.

President Bush should break it out from the general ledger and tell the Department of Transportation to get on with upgrading the airways system.

Congress already has decided that the ticket tax will be cut in half on Jan. 1, 1991, unless the DOT starts to do just that. And President Bush, like Reagan before him, does not want that cut made.

Why mess with a good thing? The tax is in place. People have gotten used to paying it. Cut it now and who knows what trouble there’ll be if we need to get it reinstated later.

No Quick Fix

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That, at any rate, appears to have been the reasoning of the Reagan Administration. Now we’ll see how his successor handles the situation.

The money in the trust fund won’t be nearly enough to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Nor will a $7.7-billion FAA appropriation.

But it can be a start for what has to come next. Nobody really knows how much it will cost to bring our airports and airways into shape.

Estimates range from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars.

But as Stephen Wolfe, the chief executive of United Airlines, said recently in a speech: “The cost of not doing anything is unacceptable.”


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