The Air Controller's Strike and Airline Safety

THE OPEN MIND

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Witkin
Air: 4/8/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I must admit that I bring to this program today a particular bias. An intense eagerness to learn all about our topic, about what I still think of as man’s strangest form of transportation: flying. For I guess that I still belong to that fast-disappearing breed that believes that if God had really meant us to fly, surely he would have given us wings. But being what sophisticates unhappily call bicoastal, traveling by air perhaps 150,000 miles each year, I do have an intense personal interest in knowing all that there is to know about airplanes and airlines. And so every couple of years I invite to The Open Mind my old friend and informant, Richard Witkin, aviation reporter for The New York Times, and ask him to share with us his bird’s-eye view of what’s going on in the sky.

Dick, thanks for joining us again here on The Open Mind. And I guess I should begin by saying luckily the controller’s strike, the air controller’s strike has been over for some time now, and I wonder whether there are some residual concerns about it that the average air traveler should have.

WITKIN: Well, there have been residual concerns expressed by some officials, notably the National Transportation Safety Board and a three-man independent committee that was set up by the Federal Aviation Administration. But mostly these concerns have to do with the future; how long we can keep the skies as safe as they are now with a lot of new controllers being trained, a lot of old controllers retiring, and traffic being restored to the levels it had before the strike.

HEFFNER: You mean we were all right before the traffic was cut back, and now we have another concern when it’s restored?

WITKIN: Well, it’s being restored. It was just announced yesterday that they now have the capacity, with the control force at hand, to handle the same volume of traffic that they had before the strike, although it’s spread out over the days that you don’t have those big peak buildups at nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. So that’s not a problem. I think, if anything, we have shown that traffic since the day of the strike, which was August 3, 1981, has been, if anything, safer than it was before the strike, for a lot of reasons.

HEFFNER: And what are those reasons?

WITKIN: Well, for one thing, the first thing the FAA did was to cut down the flow of traffic. There were quotas established, not only to the 22 busiest airports in this country, but through the busiest on–route sectors; that’s a sector between one terminal, the New York area, say, and Chicago, another area. Because there are a lot of strikers. So the second and probably the most important thing they did, or one of the most important, was to separate traffic flying between two terminal areas by something like 30 to 40 miles on a particular route, whereas previously they could crowd them as close as five miles. Thirdly, if you remember before the strike, if there were delays, you’d get in the air and you would reach New York, and then you might circle for an hour, hour and a half in a stack with a lot of other planes up in a thick soup over New York. Well, that is inherently not the best way to fly. Now if there are going to be delays, they can predict them by computer, and the delays are taken on the ground at the point of departure while you’re still sitting on the taxiway.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that if the controllers hadn’t walked out when they did, we’d still be stacked up, that we wouldn’t have adopted this new procedure?

WITKIN: I’m not sure. I think we would have gradually gotten to some of these new procedures, because when the strike began almost two years ago, we were making a lot of progress and had been for some time in translating from the old fashioned air traffic control of 15, 20 years ago when people were writing things by hand and juggling what they called shrimp boats and keeping track of things in a very old fashioned way. And awful lot of automation was coming into the system. And the more automation that comes into the system, the safer air traffic control has become.

HEFFNER: Dick, do you think that if we were either to turn the – Well, no. Forget about turning the hands of the clock back. You and I know we can’t do that – but if we were to be as fully staffed today as we were before the controllers’ strike, do you think there would be a return to the notion of stacking, which has always seemed to me to be nerve wracking, to say the least?

WITKIN: Well, they have never given up the idea of stacking, because you can’t completely predict when a snowstorm is going to hit an area. So at times there will continue to be stacking. But what they have tried to do so far is to limit the possibilities of this, because the new controllers being trained are not accustomed to handling four, five, six planes circling above one another at thousand-foot intervals. You will always have a certain amount of stacking. But I think more and more, particularly to save fuel, you will have planes waiting on the ground at the departure point. Now, there are some economic inhibitions against this, because the airlines think, well, there’s more space up there. And while they are very careful to be as safe as they can, they still figure, “Well, there’s space up there. Let’s get to the other end and see what the weather’s like, and maybe we can find a spot to come in on.” And you have to strike a balance.

HEFFNER: “Economic inhibitions.” That’s a nice phrase.

WITKIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WITKIN: Well, the airlines even today are concerned that they’re not flying as many flights as they want to. We have these quota systems at still about 15 airports, of the major airports. That means that some of the new deregulated airlines can’t find as many slots to get in to some of these airports as they’d like. If we had the old fashioned system, we could probably funnel the aluminum planes in and out of LaGuardia, say, at a faster clip than we’re doing it now. And so, also if planes have to wait in stacks or have to wait on the ground, they’re losing connections, they’re wasting fuel. One of the things that the Deregulation Act of the fall of 1978 did was to transform the aviation structure somewhat. We used to have a lot of point-to-point flights, New York-Los Angeles, New York-San Francisco. Now airlines are finding more and more, with deregulation, with the new competition from the new Johnny come Latelys, that the hub and spoke system has developed. It’s a much more economical thing, particularly with fuel shortages, to funnel…this was all pioneered by Delta, primarily, and Eastern down in Atlanta. If you wanted to g anywhere in this country in that southeastern region of the United States, you had to go by way of Atlanta. Either change planes, or the same planes. All the planes go into Atlanta, then you change planes, and all the other planes would go out. And this way you had control over your own traffic. Delta, if you had to go, say, from Birmingham to Washington, would carry you from Birmingham, through Atlanta, to Washington. But if some Johnny Come Lately came on the route and went from Birmingham direct, then Delta’s got problems. And so they try to keep as much control of the traffic as they can by having this hub and spoke system.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied that deregulation has had only economic implications for air travel and hasn’t impacted upon the safety of travel?

WITKIN: I’m not satisfied, no. I have no proof that there’s been any deterioration so far. But I think that the…Well, first of all, you have to start out with the premise, with the established fact that the airlines have been in a terrible, they’ve been in terrible shape for the last three years. They’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, this is due to a combination of things: We have a recession. We have, had a huge, until recently, surge in the price of fuel, which amounts to 30 percent of their operating costs. And we have the new competition from deregulation, where you have a lot of new airlines that can come on route, and they can, you have the fare wars. This has been perhaps the biggest single recent blow that the airlines have suffered. People, a new airline comes into a market, skims the cream off that market, even sells a loss leader in order to try to grab a hold in that market, and everybody tries to match it, and everybody’s standing around shooting themselves in the foot. So then when you get into a very bad economic situation, one wonders whether you, well, if people are up against a wall and even threatened with bankruptcy – and we’ve had a couple – one of the tempting places to cut corners is in maintenance, in the number of mechanics you have and the parts you change and the parts you inventory. It’s a constant problem. And so far we haven’t seen any flagrant examples of this, but it could be.

HEFFNER: Look, I don’t…and you know that over the years I’ve never tried to put words in your mouth. But you’re knowledgeable in this area. You get around. You talk to the people who were involved. Your answer to my question seems to indicate that you are somewhat uneasy. Do you want to be more specific about uneasiness, about safety?

WITKIN: Yes, well, we have, I am somewhat uneasy, but I can’t really specify too much. I mean, for instance, take the crash in Florida that occurred in, a little over a year ago, when the plane took off in terrible weather. The two pilots were relatively inexperienced in flying the Boeing 737. They had been flying mainly in the South for an airline that had a huge percentage of its flying in good weather. They had very little experience with snowstorms and how you operate in snowstorms. They were military…One of the, the captain was a former military F-15 pilot. And in a military plane, when you see weather like that, often, you have so much excess thrust in your jet engines that you can plow right through things. But the amount of excess thrust to the weight of the airplane that a commercial airliner has is not quite so great. And, you know, he just wasn’t as well trained perhaps in operating in this kind of a snowstorm as a lot of the older, more experienced pilots. And…

HEFFNER: This was the plane going out of Washington, Wasn’t it?

WITKIN: This was the plane going out of Washington, yes, headed for Florida. Hit the 14th Street Bridge and then crashed into the Potomac.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re suggesting that in instances like this, without being that specific, but perhaps the pressures of competition lead to less satisfactory training, preparation for all kinds of contingencies?

WITKIN: That’s only one of several potential problems. Another aspect of that accident was the fact that the airline involved had its de-icing procedures performed by another airline with which it had a contract. Because it was a small, fast-expanding airline, they couldn’t afford to put this kind of a de-icing procedure in all the airports where it went. So this is a common practice throughout the country, particularly as we have an increase in the number of airlines, to contract out some of these maintenance services, some of these de-icing services to other airlines. And an airline ground crew that’s maintaining its own planes, the planes of the airline that’s paying its salary is, by definition, going to be a lot more interested and careful, etcetera, and the coordination between procedures and training between the two airlines isn’t always what it should be.

HEFFNER: Dick, would you want to say, or not, say the opposite perhaps, that all in all, deregulation, with laudable economic objectives, has not been that good as far as safety is concerned?

WITKIN: I think it’s too early really to draw that sweeping a conclusion because the safety record is quite remarkable, particularly when you’re talking about the regular airlines. And even the commuter airlines’ safety has been much better than a lot of people expected. When we first had deregulation, we were having commuter airlines right and left. And because Langhorne Bond, who was the administrator of the FAA under Jimmy Carter, cracked down pretty heavily on it, it’s been remarkable how well the commuter airlines have done. But there’s some questionable things out there. I wouldn’t make a sweeping conclusion yet.

HEFFNER: Well, not on that level. Are you pleased, are you glad that we have had experienced deregulation?

WITKIN: No. I think deregulation had some very good thinking and ideas behind it as a theory. I think it was carried out in a kind of a knee-jerk, spasmodic, overly-hasty way. I don’t think you can go from a system of regulation which we’ve had for forty years or more and have built the best aviation system in the country and make this transition overnight. I think it should have been a progression, a carefully phased thing. And I think we have suffered to a certain extent because it was done overnight.

HEFFNER: It was strictly economically motivated, wasn’t it?

WITKIN: Well, it was the idea that competition, free enterprise, Adam Smith is the best way to get efficient businesses. Certainly the airlines before deregulation had a lot of fat in them. They weren’t as efficient as they might have been in terms of low cost in serving various areas. And the Adam Smith theory – and I don’t think Adam Smith would have subscribed to it in terms of aviation – was that we’re going to have the best possible system by letting the free marketplace forces operate. Well, in my view, that’s not completely viable, because the commercial aviation in this system is not just free enterprise like supermarkets or something else. It’s a public utility. It’s really the lubrication for our economic system. Without it, our economic system and all this high technology we’re doing would be in great trouble. It couldn’t expand and be as efficient as it is if it weren’t for a very efficient aviation system. So you have to make sure that the system works not just for people who want to fly, but for the whole economy. And there are a lot of disruptions, and a lot of small towns were denied service, and this has impacts on how goods flow, on where industries locate, and all sorts of things like that. And I don’t think you can just overnight make this transition without a lot of economic dislocation.

HEFFNER: Of course Adam Smith didn’t have to worry about flying from here to there.

WITKIN: (Laughter) That’s true.

HEFFNER: Dick, again, deregulation. In the long run, what do you think the impact will be on prices? The cost to the consumer?

WITKIIN: Well I, since economist haven’t had very clear crystal balls for some time, I might as well look in the crystal ball too and take my chances. The common wisdom to which I largely subscribe is that we’ll have a shakeout eventually. We just have too many airlines going to too many places, and we may very well end up, in two, three, five years, with a considerable number of either consolidations, mergers, or bankruptcies, and get back to a, something like the pre-deregulation system, but with a lot more flexibility, which I think we could have had under the regulated system. The regulated system was too high bound, and too inflexible. With proper regulation and forward-looking regulation, we could have done what I think we’re going to end up doing, is have a sensibly quasi-deregulated system. But there are going to be a lot fewer airlines. As far as fares are concerned, that will depend to a large extent on the economy, it will depend on how we…on the fuel prices. Right now, everybody’s looking happy because fuel prices should come down with the glut that we’re encountering and the recent decision of OPEC to bring back the prices. And since fuel is 30 percent of the operating costs, as I said, this had an enormous impact on the bottom line of airline operations. To the extent to which these fuel economies will be passed along to the customer will depend on how much of a rat race deregulation continues to be in having more and more airlines coming in the market. And that’s unpredictable.

HEFFNER: Of course, one very important point for me, again my bias…And the last time we spoke together here on The Open Mind, you were talking about some very wonderful airport systems that were still to be put in place, safety devices, means by which monitoring of incoming flights and outgoing flights would take place with much greater ease than it does now. What’s happened?

WITKIN: Well, we’ve made enormous strides, as I said before, in automation.

HEFFNER: Right.

WITKIN: And we’re getting a whole new, all these computers that we have operating now are late-1960s technology. And we can get along with at least 3,000 fewer controllers than we had before the strike. And in rebuilding the system, Lynn Helmstad of the FAA is not going to build up to where we were before. There are all kinds of electronic devices that can meter planes into a landing flow and take a plane 1,500 miles away and automatically tell the pilot of the panel how to fly, speeds to fly, and direct him to arrive at a certain point ten miles outside of Kennedy Airport at a certain altitude, at Newark at a certain speed, and make that rendezvous within a minute or less.

HEFFNER: Okay, but when we spoke last time, I had the feeling that there were technological possibilities, futures, that just weren’t being put in place as fast as you thought they could be. Now is that…Maybe I misread what you were saying then. What’s the situation now? Do you think we are moving as quickly as we can to install these new devices?

WITKIN: Given the built-in inflexibilities of bureaucracy and the way the government works, and the way congressional legislation works, nothing happens ideally, nothing happens along an ideal timetable. But we are putting in an awful lot of…we have a big ten, 20-year program. It’s going to cost billions of dollars to automate the system. And it’s coming along. Not as fast as I’d like to see it happen; but it is coming along. For instance, I don’t remember exactly what I spoke about the last time I was here, but one of the great…there have been two enormous advances in the control of air traffic and keeping planes from having near collisions or having collisions, which is the whole purpose of the ballgame, that have come along in the last ten, 15 years. And the first of those was being able to tell on a radar scope not only where the two or dozen airplanes were over the ground geographically, but what their altitudes were; tell it right on the radar scope. Whereas, prior to that, we had to have controllers juggling little plastic strips called shrimp boats, and they had to keep writing the new altitudes on those things. And all that, the human mind got into this, and it’s not quite as accurate as a computer. So, when we had three-dimensional – that’s what it amounts to – three-dimensional radar, you could tell a lot more. It was a lot easier to handle a greater volume of planes in a limited traffic area. The other thing that is a remarkable advance in automation is what’s called conflict alert. The computer keeps track of, as the radar keeps feeding moment-by-moment updates on where the plane is, both in altitude and laterally, as the computer keeps feeding this new information, getting this new information from the radar, the computer can keep calculating where planes are headed, where they’re going to be in the next two minutes or so. If planes within two minutes of one another are on anything like a collision course, all kinds of alarms go on at the particular controller’s station that’s having that, and he can send out, get on the radio and tell one of the planes or both to take evasive maneuvers. This happened right out here in New York when a South American airliner got about 4,000 – I forget the exact figures – but got about 4,000 feet below what his altitude should have been and heading up Manhattan, and he was headed right for the World Trade Center. And just about the time the controller caught it – he should have caught it before – the conflict alert system went off. And they missed by a couple of miles, but it could have been hairy.

HEFFNER: You mean to say the conflict alert system that you’re praising so much could lead to such a hairy situation, as you described it?

WITKIN: It doesn’t lead to it; it averts it. It detects when planes are, it detects when planes are getting on a collision course, which previously you had to depend upon the controller watching the radar or watching the shrimp boats, or later the three-dimensional radar, and keeping track of them. Now we have a backup, and electronic backup for the controller.

HEFFNER: I guess all I’m saying is I want those signals to go off long before two miles away from…

WITKIN: I didn’t say…I say two minutes.

HEFFNER: You say two minutes?

WITKIN: Two minutes.

HEFFNER: Okay, two minutes. Fair enough.

WITKIN: Plane goes many miles in two minutes. They’re going at about 250 miles an hour when they’re flying up Manhattan.

HEFFNER: I wouldn’t take it all back. Instead, I’ll switch the question to something else. Are these new technologies in place now in the major airports of the country?

WITKIN: The conflict alert system is in place throughout the system. It all makes something little, small.

HEFFNER: Why then do we hear so frequently that the pilots will say, “This airport, that airport, another airport, these are the bad ones. Stay away if you can.”

WITKIN: Well, that’s because there are other things to getting a plane into an airport than keeping separated from other planes.

HEFFNER: Poor whiskey, things like that? Bad hotels?

WITKIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You don’t mean that. What are you talking about then?

WITKIN: Well, take the San Diego collision between…which happened in the fall of 1978. That was in relatively clear weather. Those planes were not being – well, it was a complicate thing which I haven‘t got time to go into here – but those planes were making visual approaches, visual flight rules were in effect then. And theoretically, they had transitioned from a computerized control where they had to be kept apart by computer lengths relayed to them by the controller. They said, “You got that plane in sight? Go in behind him.” Well, they had the wrong plane in sight, and two planes came together. In other words, when you, you can get a lot more planes into an airport in a particular time if you transition from being controlled by traffic controllers at three-mile intervals, when you can cut those intervals by a considerable amount if you say, “Okay, follow that X airline 747 in. He’s on his base leg.” And you look at it and somebody lost track of one of the airplanes in the transition.

HEFFNER: Now, can that happen with the new technology?

WITKIN: Oh, yes. Well, now we’ve got another thing coming along, but it isn’t here and in place yet. This is what’s called collision avoidance systems. That’s CAS. And these, well the airlines, the industry has been working on these things for two decades. As a matter of fact, way back in the late 60s, around ’70, one airline went so far as to order such a thing. Now, what a collision avoidance system is is an electronic black box in an aircraft which will keep track, it has its own sweeping radar, and it can tell when it’s getting within range of another plane that’s properly equipped, and if it does so, the computer — and we now have microminiaturization, so we can make these computers very small – will signal that another plane is in sight, and tell the pilot climb, dive, and eventually, take a right turn, take a left turn. Now these things have been flown experimentally. Prototypes of them have been in flight experimentally on Piedmont Airlines. And there are smaller ones for smaller aircraft that don’t tell you which kind of an evasive maneuver to take, but at least will alert you that another plane is within your range, so if the pilot’s got his head in his lap reading a map, he’ll look up and look around much more vigorously. And they should be on the market within two years.

HEFFNER: Dick, we only have a few minutes left. The same doggone thing happened last time, and it’s my fault.

WITKIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I wanted to talk, at least now, for a couple of moments, about the private planes, the private pilots.

WITKIN: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: They seem to be…mention of them the last time we talked, seemed to me to be a little bit like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Do you still feel that way?

WITKIN: Whom are you waving this red flag in front of?

HEFFNER: In front of you. You seemed to feel that we had a real problem in terms of safety with the activities of the private pilots.

WITKIN: Well, the private pilots, private aviation has a much inferior record of safety to what corporate jets, to what the airlines have, for instance. But they have made great strides, I think, since I was here last. And they’re getting more, a larger percentage of them are real professionals. They’re cooperating, I think much better with the government agencies. The agencies are cooperating much better with them. I think there’s a better rapport. And I think there’s a higher level of expertise in general aviation. And there’s a lot of safety efforts being promoted by the safety board, by the Flight Safety Foundation, by the private pilots’ organizations themselves. So I think there’s been a big improvement in that area.

HEFFNER: Did the controllers’ strike lead to regulations upon private flying that diminish the threat they might have been to regular commercial flying?

WITKIN: No, because, after all, the country’s open equally to everybody and the private aviation was given its quota. In other words, the cutbacks that were made, the quotas, the limitations on flights, were, they tried to make them equitable so that they impacted equally on airlines, private pilots, air taxis and everybody else. So I don’t think that private aviation has suffered any particularly inequitable cutback in its activities.

HEFFNER: Do they think so?

WITKIN: They have been relatively quiet. Now, I haven’t, you know, they maybe figure that this is the politically good thing to do in an era when the public in general, I think, is pretty much behind what President Reagan has done. He got a tremendous amount of support in how he handled the controllers’ strike. So at the moment they seem to be not making a lot of noise.

HEFFNER: Dick Witkin, thanks for joining me today on The Open Mind.

WITKIN: Good to see you again.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again here on The Open Mind. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.