Reason Foundation Supports CTI, Denounces Hiring Process as “bizarre”

The Reason Foundation, as part of the Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter, has published an article that discusses the separation of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization as well as criticizes the changes the FAA made to the hiring process.

Further Thoughts on a Separate Air Traffic Organization

Last month’s article on a near-term reform that would remove the ATO from safety regulator FAA and make it a separate DOT modal agency has generated a lot of feedback, nearly all positive. For those who are not persuaded, I first offer some background on how the original model of a business-like Air Traffic Organization was subverted by FAA. After that, I suggest some additional specifics of the proposed reform measure that could be included in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill between now and September 30th.

The first two Chief Operating Officers of the ATO did yeoman work in an effort to convert a large and unwieldy bureaucracy into a business-like entity. But those changes did not sit well with new DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who took office in mid-2009. Babbitt’s first change was to forbid the ATO from referring to airspace users as “customers,” confusing the difference between those being regulatedby the FAA’s regulatory function and those receiving services from its air traffic function.

But far worse was his effort to break down the separation between the ATO and the rest of FAA. In 2010 he commissioned the Monitor Group to do an organizational review. The study was kept under wraps so tightly that even the DOT Inspector General’s Office did not learn about it until well after I wrote about it in the May 2011 issue of this newsletter. And I only learned about it when an ATO insider leaked me the link to a March 2, 2011 “all-hands video briefing” on the results of the study. Monitor Group, like all good consultants, figured out the results Babbitt wanted–and delivered them. It identified “duplication” between FAA and ATO, so its number-one recommendation was to “optimize shared services.” Another was to “build one FAA culture.” The title of my newsletter article was “Is the ATO Being Dismantled?” and the answer clearly was yes.

Two major changes stemmed from those recommendations One was to take the overall NextGen responsibility away from the ATO, having it report directly to the FAA Administrator rather than the ATO Chief Operating Officer. And the other was that the ATO lost control of its personnel policies-and especially the recruitment of new controllers. Despite both internal and external studies having recommended relying heavily on recruiting from graduates of the Collegiate Training Initiative, FAA’s human resources people (in the name of “diversity”) substituted a bizarre off-the-street recruitment process that required applicants to “pass” a Biographical Questionnaire-which excluded many highly qualified CTI graduates. This change provoked bipartisan congressional outrage and was subsequently scaled back, but not eliminated.

With this as background, here are some specifics about what should be included and excluded in separating the ATO from FAA. Clearly, as a new modal agency the New ATO would need to have control of its own personnel system, including recruitment and training. It should also have its own legal and administrative functions. It should notinclude either the FAA Tech Center in Atlantic City or the Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. The New ATO would be able to contract with those entities for any services it needed (and a revamped approach to controller training might reduce or eventually eliminate the current training at the Academy in Oklahoma City, as has been recommended by outside studies).

Clearly, New ATO should regain full control of all of NextGen. A key premise of creating the ATO was to combine technology development/procurement with ATC operations, rather than these being separate domains, as had been FAA practice. Years ago, Congress enacted FAA procurement reforms, which have never really been used to rethink and streamline how the FAA/ATO develop and procure new systems. That procurement freedom should be passed along intact to New ATO.

But would New ATO actually reform development and procurement? That is unlikely unless New ATO is also freed from civil service constraints. Making that admittedly large change would have large benefits. First, it would permit the organization to recruit and compensate highly qualified engineering, software, and program management people-and hold them accountable for results. Second, it would permit termination of people whom some refer to as “on-the-job retirees,” whose de-facto interest is in a large, complex bureaucratic system. This reform will likely be opposed by the FAA Managers Association, but would likely be supported by controllers’ union NATCA, which has been on board with the non-civil-service status of the planned ATC Corporation-and NATCA’s membership vastly outstrips FAAMA’s.

Finally, New ATO should be run by a Chief Executive Officer, not a Chief Operating Officer. The CEO would be accountable to the Secretary of Transportation, and would be advised by a New ATO Advisory Board, separate from the current FAA Management Advisory Council. Its headquarters should be entirely separate from the current FAA building in Washington. (Several people have suggested locating it adjacent to the Command Center in Warrenton, VA.) And of course the revamped entity would require its own website and email addresses. How about


FAA hires air traffic controllers off the street, students claim reverse discrimination, FOX News

PHOENIX — Last year, FOX 10 broke the story about thousands of college students prepared to become air traffic controllers, only to suddenly get washed out of the program by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Now those students have filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming reverse discrimination.

For 24 years, the FAA relied on colleges and universities to prepare the next generation of air traffic controllers through the Collegiate Training Initiative.

Arizona State University has produced hundreds of these students.

Two years ago, the FAA did a startling about face, suddenly announcing it would begin hiring air traffic controllers “off the street” with no experience necessary.

Anthony Fox, head of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, told Congress about the sudden hiring changes.

“The FAA took an opportunity to take a broad opening of the aperture, if you will, to try to get a larger universe of applicants into the program.”

Erin Hogan graduated from ASU at the top of her class.

“I scored 99 on the AT-SAT,” she said.

The AT-SAT, since 2002, is the gold standard for screening air traffic control applicants.

“I have two degrees. Bachelor’s degree in aviation management and a bachelor’s degree in air traffic control.”

Andrew Brigida graduated from ASU in 2013, ready to embark on a career as a controller.

He’s the named plaintiff in the lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit claims changes in hiring of air traffic controllers amounts to employment discrimination.

“You have trained for four years to do this job and suddenly the government announces, ah, forget all that, we’re going to hire off the street. Does that make any sense to you? It doesn’t make any sense to anybody.”

Bottom line, both Brigida and Hogan, highly qualified controllers, were washed out after spending tens of thousands of dollars on their education.  And this comes at a time when the FAA is facing a critical shortage of air traffic controllers.

Former controller John Gilding says lowering the hiring standards is compromising passenger safety.

“If you’re going to climb on an airplane and put grandma on the airplane and your kids on the airplane, do you want a well skilled, highly competent, talented person working that airplane or do you want some high school dropout that’s got his hat on backwards being the person guiding the airplane? I know what my answer is.”

The lawsuit alleges there was pressure on the FAA to hire more African-American controllers, but the percentage of African-American CTI students actually exceeded the percentage of African-Americans in the civilian workforce.

Congress: New FAA Cheating Revelations Mandate a Congressional Hearing, says Hultgren

Washington, DC – Following new revelations that additional FAA or aviation-related employees may have assisted in giving potential air traffic controller recruits special access to answers on a key admissions test to help them gain jobs with the FAA, U.S. Representative Randy Hultgren (IL-14) restated his call, begun in December of last year, for FAA officials to appear before Congress to answer for their actions. Rep. Hultgren, a former member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, has urged the House to act on his legislation, H.R. 1964, the Air Traffic Controllers Hiring Act of 2015 (previously known as the SAFE TOWERS Act), to reverse the effects of the FAA’s policies and restore safety and confidence to air travel.

“I am deeply disturbed that this alleged cheating may run deeper than first reported. If additional FAA or aviation-related employees helped applicants cheat on the Biographical Questionnaire (BQ), it is imperative we bring in those responsible and determine how widespread the misconduct is. Again, I urge Congress to hold a hearing and compel the FAA to appear before the American people to get to the bottom of this troubling discovery,” said Rep. Hultgren. “We need answers: Did the FAA know someone on the inside was helping people cheat, and did they cover it up? Was it a tactic with a purpose: to ensure targeted populations would pass the test? Who wrote the BQ, and who validated it (if anyone)?

“In addition, we still don’t know what will happen to those who have either failed the BQ, aged out of the hiring process, or both, for which they spent countless personal resources. I urge my colleagues to support my legislation to provide relief to those hurt by the FAA’s actions, and restore confidence in the air traffic controller hiring process.”

The FAA is under fire following a six month investigation into the agency’s new hiring practices which for months Rep. Hultgren has argued caused the agency to pass over the most qualified air traffic controller candidates, such as experienced veterans, and have raised concerns of air travel safety. The investigation also uncovered the alleged cheating, which Rep. Hultgren has called out. Illinois’ 14th Congressional District is home to the most air traffic controllers in Illinois.

Growing Concern Over FAA Controller Hiring Policy, Reason Foundation – Air Traffic Control Newsletter #119

Growing Concern Over FAA Controller Hiring Policy

The FAA’s controversial 2014 controller hiring policy—opening it up to “off-the-street” candidates and requiring everyone to first “pass” a Biographical Assessment (BA)—is attracting more critical attention. A bipartisan Safe Towers Act was introduced last year by Reps. Randy Hultgren (R, IL) and Dan Lipinski (D, IL), and will be reintroduced in the new Congress. It would eliminate use of the BA and reinstate the long-standing FAA preference for graduates of ATC courses at colleges in the Collegiate Training Initiative and former military controllers. It would also allow those who did not “pass” the 2014 BA to re-apply, which is not currently allowed.

FAA has never given a straightforward explanation for the new procedure, which is widely believed to be motivated by concerns within the FAA Human Resources office that too high a fraction of controllers are white males. Officials of CTI colleges, such as Curt Scott of Green River College in Auburn, WA, told Air Traffic Management that “CTI schools had already provided a large and very diverse pool of available, ‘ready to train’ candidates—which the FAA BA personality test screened out for the most part, disqualifying over 90%.”

Fox 10 in Phoenix reported on Dec. 23, 2014 that it had obtained internal FAA documents and emails relating to the new hiring approach, claiming that they “show the biographical assessment was never validated, and the agency knew it was flawed.” It reported an email saying the agency “has restricted briefings on the background and development of the BA, citing advice [from counsel] amid concerns of legal challenges.” An email from a deputy assistant administrator was reported as saying, “I want to consolidate a few different email chains and make sure everyone is on the same page . . . we have to find a way to address Congressional inquiries without hurting our cause when it comes to litigation.” Our cause?

Despite this defensiveness, yet another email reported as “particularly troubling . . . the large number of CTI candidates who were previously qualified, many of whom had already passed the the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) test with high test scores, who were subsequently deemed ineligible because of the BA.” Another such email noted that “Some FAA Employee Associations have expressed concern that many very qualified minority and women candidates, as well as veterans, were deemed ineligible based on the BA.”

The only defense from FAA that I’m aware of is that the BA was intended as a screening device, to avoid the huge expense of administering the AT-SAT to some 22,500 applicants—as opposed to the 1,591 deemed to have passed the BA and thereby eligible to take the AT-SAT. But that justification is ludicrous. It rests on the premise that FAA should open its doors to “off-the-street” applicants, rather than limiting applicants to former military controllers and CTI graduates, as had been the practice prior to 2014.

That’s the course recommended in 2005 by the DOT Office of Inspector General in AV-2006-021, “FAA Has Opportunities to Reduce Academy Training Time and Cost by Increasing Educational Requirements for Newly Hired Air Traffic Controllers.” The idea was that FAA would shift some of the coursework now taught at its Academy to the CTI schools, enabling most such graduates to finish the Academy course in less time and possibly enabling some to bypass it altogether and go straight to on-the-job training. This would also be consistent with the requirement in many federal professional job categories for a college degree. It would also be consistent with the 2011 recommendations of FAA’s Independent Review Panel on the Selection, Assignment, and Training of Air Traffic Control Specialists.

Frankly, the effort to politicize the selection and training of air traffic controllers does great harm to the ATO’s standing as one of the world’s best ANSPs. It is yet another reason to de-politicize the ATO, by removing it from the FAA and converting it into a self-supporting, commercialized ANSP.

Blame the FAA for air-traffic controller shortage, CNBC

With Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, behind us, there is a growing problem that could affect air-passenger safety — an impending shortage of air-traffic controllers.

As backdrop, Ronald Reagan fired nearly 12,000 air-traffic controllers in 1981, when these workers illegally went on strike and effectively shut down airports across the country. Today, because of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) mandatory retirement age of 56, a deluge of retirements are expected over the next few years. Without a solid plan to replace these controllers with equally competent hires, public safety is being put to the test, and consumers should expect increased delays and cancellations in the years to follow.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Office report, more than 11,700 air-traffic controllers will retire by 2021. While the work-force attrition was certainly a predictable outcome and it was on the FAA’s radar, it seems that the FAA failed to take the necessary steps to plan for the shortfall. The FAA’s failure is highlighted by years of mismanagement, a proposal to dissolve its current air-traffic controller training program, and a decision to completely overhaul its hiring processes for new air traffic controllers.

Closer examination of FAA’s practices reveals a startling series of management problems over the years.

Recent audits have been very critical of the FAA — particularly its poor management of the current air traffic controller training program, overspending and dropping productivity, and deficiencies involving air traffic controller fatigue, as well as delays in addressing and implementing suggestions by auditors. The problems paint a picture of incompetency, project mismanagement, a bureaucracy that has become too out of touch with its mission, or some combination.

The FAA has also demonstrated deficiencies in planning. The issue of labor shortages did not just creep up; the FAA knew about it and needed to plan for it. Training air-traffic controllers is expensive and takes more than two years to get a candidate fully trained. As a result, alleviating a future shortage requires action now. Whereas audits have generally pointed the finger of blame at the FAA, the agency – in scapegoating fashion – recently decided to end its current air-traffic controller training contract. The timing could not come at a worse time, with shortages mounting. A better approach would be to make improvements to the current training program in order to get more eyes on the sky.

Further, the FAA has decided to stop selecting its training candidates from qualified flight schools or by offering training slots to military vets who have experience. Instead, the focus will be to take candidates from off the street, which will not improve the quality of the candidates, will increase training time and cost taxpayers more money. It’s doubtful that reducing the prerequisites for air traffic controller jobs will be considered a flying success. But, there could be a hidden agenda here but, for whatever the reason, it has nothing to do with improving public safety.

The bottom line is that revamping the air-traffic controller training program could not have come at a worse time, as the FAA needs to bring more controllers quickly onboard. It is like an NFL team completely changing its playbook right before the playoffs – it’s too late to practice and mistakes will happen. However, mistakes with flying safety are not a game. The resulting airport delays will cost American consumers billions of dollars of lost time, and the increase in flight cancellations will only raise consumer prices, not to mention the potential for jeopardizing public safety.

Stretching air-traffic controllers too thin is a risk, particularly with the mental and physical stress of keeping aircraft from colliding into each other. So, absent proven performance in air-traffic control breakthroughs, the FAA will have to replace the retiring controllers – with properly trained candidates. It’s a matter of public safety.

Commentary by Steve Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. Follow him on Twitter @consumerpal.


FAA Playing Fast and Loose With Passenger Safety and Flight Delays, Roll Call

At a time when U.S. airline passengers are experiencing the highest rate of flight delays in more than 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration is proposing radical changes to its air traffic control management programs that could lead to further flight delays, cancellations and jeopardize aircraft and passenger safety.

FAA plans to scrap the current air traffic controller training program, the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution, that has been successfully training our nation’s air traffic controllers and replace it with a new, untested training program. Under normal circumstances, this may not be problematic. But with thousands of new air traffic control hires anticipated in the coming years and those hires needing three to five years of training, now is hardly the time to re-invent the wheel.

Recent Department of Transportation’s Inspector General audit reports outlined FAA’s weaknesses to implement program and contract management practices as a major cause of it achieving only half its training goals over the past five years. The IG found that the FAA overran its budget — using up a full five-year budget in just four years; failed to fully identify total training costs in advance; and failed to find innovations to reduce the training time for controllers.

Rather than address their internal inefficiencies and mismanagement, FAA is appearing to look for a “quick fix”. This kind of action is not without consequences to airline safety, efficient passenger travel and taxpayers.

Knowing this, the House and Senate Appropriations committee this week included language in the fiscal 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that stalls FAA’s attempts to scrap the ATCOTS training program and requires the agency to meet specific directives from the IG report, before considering any other air traffic controller training options.

Further, some 11,000 air traffic controllers hired in the wake of the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike will soon be entering into mandatory retirement. Meanwhile, the FAA has overhauled its hiring process shifting focus from recruiting highly-qualified graduates who have studied air traffic control at FAA-accredited college aviation programs and military veterans with extensive aviation experience to hiring “off-the-street.” This includes no requirement of previous aviation experience or any higher education — resulting in fewer qualified controllers entering the federal workforce.

Coupled with the additional hiring delays stemming from last year’s government shutdown and sequestration, we face a looming shortfall in the number of qualified air traffic controllers to monitor U.S. flights and airspace and provide the necessary safety and smooth travel to air passengers.

The FAA has created a perfect storm in the skies. These recent changes and proposed changes will solve nothing and only serve to exacerbate the impending shortage of air traffic controllers — ultimately delaying passengers and costing taxpayers.

With every new system migration or training program there are a number of risks. Moving to a different air traffic controller training program would likely take years to fully implement at significant taxpayer expense without any guarantees of its success. It would also massively disrupt the training at the very time when we need to be aggressively activating more hires.

The FAA has had more than 10 years to plan for the imminent retirement of these air traffic controllers yet it has failed to proactively train and hire replacement controllers. We should view these proposals for what they really are – a smokescreen to divert attention away from the FAA’s own lack of oversight and mismanagement practices, not a structural issue with the current training program in place.

The efforts by House and Senate Appropriators to keep the FAA from dismantling its current air traffic controller training program are a step in the right direction, but are only a temporary fix.

Ultimately, rather than reinventing the wheel with a new air traffic controller training program that will only increase the current shortfall of air traffic controllers and cost to taxpayers, the FAA should focus on fixing its own internal practices, and make minor adjustments to the current training program as indicated. This is the only way we can ensure we have an adequate number of qualified air traffic controllers to ensure airplanes and passengers get to their destinations safely and efficiently.

The traveling public deserves real solutions, not another Washington D.C. sleight of hand.

Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, served as a member of Congress from northeast Ohio for 18 years. He is currently president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies.

Is the FAA Rejecting the Best Controllers?, FLYING

Recent changes in the methodology used by the FAA to hire air traffic controllers may have resulted in some highly qualified candidates finding themselves without a job. A report from CBS News claims that some of the top ranked students from highly respected ATC programs have been rejected as a result of new pre-employment testing.

The FAA changed the way it hires air traffic controllers at the beginning of the year, stepping away from the traditional interview process and experience questionnaire, which was done as a part of the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT), to new standardized testing through what the agency refers to as a biographical assessment, also referred to as the bio-data assessment. Only those candidates who pass the biographical assessment will be invited to take the AT-SAT.

According to the FAA, the biographical assessment serves as an initial qualifier and measures general and ATC-specific work experience, education and training, work habits, academic and other achievements, specific life experiences and other factors. The new process was implemented to “increase the speed, efficiency and objectivity of the decision making process.”

Yet some of the top graduates of the Community College of Beaver County Air Traffic Controller Program, a highly ranked ATC program in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, have been rejected based on the bio-data assessment results, the CBS article says. Graduates of the program question the validity of some of the questions in the bio-data assessment.

The FAA is currently evaluating the new hiring process and is considering public feedback while making possible changes before the next round of hiring begins. The agency plans to hire 6,600 controllers in the next five years, according to an announcement by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta earlier this year.

FAA Hiring Changes Leaving Some Qualified Air Traffic Controllers Without Jobs, CBS

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The days leading up to and after Thanksgiving are some of the busiest time of the year to fly.

You’d want to think the most qualified people are working as air traffic controllers.

However, some say a change in the way the FAA hires people for those jobs could affect passengers’ safety.

Back in May, in Houston, Texas, two planes taking off got dangerously close after an air traffic controller apparently made a mistake. They told one to turn into the others’ path.

Fortunately, it was corrected at the last minute.

A few weeks before, off the coast of Hawaii, another near miss reportedly happened because a controller didn’t notice the two planes were about to collide.

“All the tray tables were rattling. It was a really violent and scary experience,” passenger Kevin Townsend said.

Both close calls show just how important it is to have the very best controllers guiding planes.

Folks at a local school who train controllers fear the way the FAA is now hiring, actually weeds out some of the most qualified candidates.

“I can’t definitely say it’s [going to] affect safety, but I think it’s a concern,” Community College of Beaver County’s Jim Scott said. “It concerns me a lot.”

Scott works at the Community College Of Beaver County Air Traffic Controller Program, which is one of 33 such schools across the nation.

It is also considered to be one of the best.

Yet, some of their best candidates have recently been rejected by the FAA.

“It’s hard to say you’re mad at something that you don’t understand. I just don’t understand what they were looking for,” graduate Mat Coston said.

Earlier this year, the FAA decided whether you graduate from one of these schools, or apply right off the street, you have to take an online biographical questionnaire.

It asks questions like.

What were my scores in math in high school?

Do you see yourself as persistent or determined?

What sports did I play?

“I’m not sure exactly what it has to do with air traffic control,” graduate Kaitlynn Cornett said.

Cornett was rejected, too with seemingly no regard to how she did at the school.

“I had graduated from the program with honors,” Cornett said.

So, students who had spent 20, 30, or even $40,000 on schooling learned it no longer gave them the advantage it used to when it comes to getting hired by FAA.

“There were a lot of people who were highly qualified and graduated from this program who didn’t pass it,” Scott said.

But, the FAA tells a different story.

In a statement released over the summer, it said the new hiring process has led to “even more of the best, and most qualified candidates.”

So, why the change in the first place? Was it to give people with no prior training more of a chance?

Some say it’s an effort to get more diversity among controllers.

Aviation Services Director Bill Pinter claims that may actually have backfired.

“They wanted the air traffic control workforce to more closely mirror the demographics of our country. So, that’s a reasonable intention, but the process which they use, it’s not giving them the level of diversity that it’s seeking,” Pinter said.

In September, two lawmakers from Illinois introduced a bill that would dump the new hiring rules.

Pinter is optimistic the FAA will revise things on its own and graduates such as Coston, certainly hope so.

“It’s more frustrating than anything else when someone changes the rules on you,” Coston said.

The administrator of the FAA said they’ve received useful feedback from the public and lawmakers on its hiring process and will make further improvements before the next round of hiring.

FAA Hiring Changes Leaving Some Qualified Air Traffic Controllers Without Jobs