WASHINGTON -- The government anticipates at least 29,000 applications for the jobs of fired striking air traffic controllers and plans to speed up training programs to fill the vacancies.
Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said 20,000 prospective applicants have contacted the government since the nationwide strike by 13,000 controllers began Monday. There were 9,000 applications on file before the illegal stike started.
'There are a lot of people who'd love to be traffic controllers. It's one of the highest-paid jobs in the country,' said Lewis. 'We have 20,000 people who have contacted us and who would like to replace these people.'
But even with a speeded-up training process, FAA chief J. Lynn Helms estimated it would take 21 months to have his operation back to normal by training just 6,500 new controllers.
The government started carrying out President Reagan's vow to fire controllers not returning to work on Wednesday. Thousands of pink slips were expected today.
But firing the controllers may be easier said than done. 'It's really tough to fire government employees,' said Lewis aide Beverly Silverberg.
Every traffic controller who finds a government pink slip in his mailbox has a week to respond in writing or orally. When that time expires, he has another 20 days to appeal the dismissal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Appeals from the board go directly to U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, and one federal official speculated the whole thing may get to the Supreme Court.
Lewis said the government has found that it doesn't need such a large force of controllers and needn't fill all the vacancies. There are now 17,000 controllers -- 15,000 of them members of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
'We believe we can operate this system with two to three thousand less,' Lewis said in an interview with the Public Broadcasting System's MacNeil-Lehrer Report.
But Lewis was disputed by PATCO President Robert Poli, who was interviewed by the same television program. 'If that was the case, why did they have so many controllers in the first place that they can operate without?' Poli said.
Lewis said the government plans to speed up the training process for new controllers although, 'It's going to cost us a lot of money to train these people.'
Officials at the Air Traffic Controller Academy at Oklahoma City said trainees normally spend four months at the school and then up to four years under supervison in the field before they are fully qualified controllers. The school has a 20 percent washout rate.
It has been costing the government up to $69,000 to train each new controller, sometimes more, depending on how much time they spend in the field.
'In the worst case, it will take 21 months to fill all of the jobs that would have to be filled because of this strike,' Lewis said.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Helms estimated he could have his operation back to normal by training just 6,500 new controllers.
The first replacements hired will be drawn from 9,000 people who already have passed aptitude tests and are on an FAA waiting list. Then the 20,000 new applications will be tapped.