Career Moves

capJames Careless reports on US Congress action to reverse the contested US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy on new hires

College-trained air traffic controllers and military veterans could just regain their preferred hiring status with the FAA, if Congress passes the proposed Safe Towers Acts.

Those efforts could receive a welcome boost following the news that a United States transport watchdog has just announced it will audit the FAA air traffic controller hiring processes in light of last year’s controversial changes to a system that had been in place for decades.

The bill, which is being spearheaded by Republican congressmen Randy Hultgren and Dan Lipinski, would force the FAA to resume giving preference to these two groups over the general public when it comes to filling controller positions.

Up until now, college-trained graduates are being educated under the FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programme, which the federal agency has run in partnership with certified schools for almost 25 years.

The move comes at a time when the FAA is preparing to revamp the way air traffic controllers are hired. Instead of hiring the most highly qualified and knowledgeable college graduates who have been certified from air traffic control accredited schools via the CTI, as well as operationally qualified ex-military controllers, most of the FAA’s newly-hired candidates will have no direct aviation experience.

The proposed Hultgren/Lipinski legislation would also establish an ATC advisory committee made up of relevant educational institutions and organisations to advise the FAA on the application and educational process for new controllers – and compel the agency to report to Congress on its compliance/non-compliance with the committee’s recommendations.

“The Safe Towers Act is targeted at making sure we have the best and brightest in our control towers,” said Hultgren. “The new hiring standards jeopardise air travel safety because they divert the hiring process around highly-qualified, CTI-certified trainees and elevate off-the-street candidates.

As well, the Safe Towers Act would compel the FAA to stop initially screening applicants using a cost-saving online ‘Biographical Questionnaire’ (aka ‘bio-data assessment’, or Bio Q). The test, which is based on assessing specific personality aspects rather than the applicant’s actual ATC aptitude and aptitude, is an attempt by the FAA to avoid spending millions of dollars on individual Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) tests for each and every applicant. The idea is to identify personality traits associated with successful controllers, and then to select candidates who have those same traits; rather than to screen them based on education and experience.

“Psychological assessments are important, especially for high-stress jobs,” Hultgren said. “But disqualifying highly-trained, certified graduates because they did or did not play sports in high school, as one Bio Q question asked, is ridiculous.”

Credit

The introduction of the Safe Tower Act is welcome news for CTI-certified colleges, whose paying enrolment was devastated by the FAA’s unexpected retreat from preferring graduates and veterans over the general public.

“We saw our enrolment fall by about 60 per cent,” said James Scott, air traffic control coordinator at the Aviation Sciences Centre in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. “With the FAA no longer giving credit for their education – and the money they spent getting it – many of our ATC students saw no reason to continue with their courses.”

Trying to find out precisely why the FAA did what it did is no easy matter. The ultra-partisan environment in Washington makes any federal agency extremely uneasy when it comes to explaining its actions. This fear particularly applies to the FAA, which recently came close to shutting down a number of smaller ATC contract towers due to arbitrary budget cuts caused by the Congressional ‘sequestration’ budget power struggle. Those towers only dodged this bullet because Congress gave in to withering public pressure; allowing the FAA to divert funds from other programmes to keep those contract towers open.

In the ATC hiring case, the FAA’s move to initial online Bio Q testing was apparently a twin response to complaints about its ATC work force not being ‘diverse enough’ – i.e. not having enough women and non-white controllers – and fears that there just wasn’t enough money to screen thousands of applicants under the old testing system.

To defend its actions, the FAA released a statement in October 2014 that said its online process recently screened over 28,000 applications for 1,700 positions, and that ‘applicants with an aviation and/or military background or education did very well’.

Of those who passed the FAA online screening process, ‘about 65 per cent of the new class has some combination of CTI, military, or some specific aviation related work history or experience’, said the FAA statement. The agency took pains to point out the success of CTI graduates: “Of the 5,966 applications from CTI students and graduates, 754 were approved, for a pass rate of 12.64 per cent,” the FAA said. “Of the 22,508 applications from the general public, 837 were approved, for a pass rate of 3.72 per cent. Nearly half – 47.4 per cent – of the ATCS Class of 2014 are CTI graduates or have had some CTI school education.”

Mindful of the uproar over its Bio Q test – which is meant to detect applicant characteristics that have been shown empirically to predict success as an air traffic controller in the FAA, the agency stressed that the bio-data assessment served its intended purpose of screening a large pool of applicants into a smaller group of the best candidates, saving the agency money on additional testing.

The FAA said that administering the AT-SAT to 28,000 applicants would cost more than $8 million ($300/per person) and that for the interim process it administered the AT-SAT to slightly over 1,700 candidates with a pass rate of over 90 per cent.

Smoke Screen     

To put it mildly, the FAA’s defence of its current hiring process did not impress CTI educators. “This is a smoke screen,” fumes Douglas Williams, aviation programme director with the Community College of Baltimore County, Maryland. “They did not hire a better qualified force. In fact, they lowered the standards by rejecting CTI graduates and veterans who had served honorably as controllers in the military, opting instead to hire people off the street with no prior aviation experience!”

“The FAA continues to defend a decision that was a poor operational decision and also a poor human resources decision,” said Curt Scott, ATC programmee lead at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington. “Operationally, these changes will almost surely increase costs, training time and training resources consumption,” he explains. “From an HR diversity perspective, the change appears to be defensible — until one digs into the diversity of the CTI school enrolments and learns that CTI schools had already provided a large and very diverse pool of available ‘ready to train’ candidates — which the FAA Bio Q personality test screened out for the most part; disqualifying over 90 per cent.”

It is difficult to judge just how much the FAA actually believes in its current ATC screening process. After all, its creation was motivated by a pressing need to ‘do more with less’, rather than any real desire to change the testing process. It certainly makes no sense for the FAA to willingly drop its preference for CTI-trained ATC applicants, given the agency’s central role in devising this process in the first place.

No matter: the FAA’s current controller hiring policy appears to be doomed. The reason: despite being sponsored by the Republicans, the sentiments behind the Safe Towers Act are easy for the opposing Democrats to also embrace. In fact, Hultgren recently led a group of Illinois Republicans and Democrats who complained to the FAA about its hiring policy.

Political tidbit: The Hultgren news release heralding the Safe Towers Act describes it as reversing the ‘new, obscure, and illogical hiring practices’ of the Federal Aviation Administration; rather than the Democrats or the Obama administration.

As a result, it seems reasonable to predict the Safe Towers Act becoming law in the months to come; restoring CTI graduate/veteran preference to the agency’s controller hiring process and boosting enrolment at CTI schools.

Ironically, being forced to resume its old controller screening policies would get the FAA out of an embarrassing situation, without appearing to cave in to outside demands. The only question: Where would the money come from to pay for the FAA’s restored ATC hiring process?

Posted in Features, Training and Simulation

2 Responses to Career Moves

  1. Richard McIntosh says:

    As a former PATCO member I know this policy to be wrong. Being able to visualize 3 dimensions in a 2 dimensional environment is not a function of intelligence. You either have the spatial relationship gene or you do’t. Back in the day the FAA tested rather heavily for this both in the pre-hire phase and the manual problems training in OKC(Center Controllers). I suspect the testing process was adjusted post 1981 to get more bodies in the pipeline.

    PS I had a 96% test score and had to wait 2 years to get hired.

  2. Diacen says:

    True…few can withstand the pressure of acting as a SERVER to many clients with differing temperaments,behaviors,…many a times…they
    just crash…