Controversy Over FAA Controller Hiring and Training, Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #110

The ATC cross-subsidy dilemma, Controversy over controller hiring and training, Another real-time aviation weather project

Robert Poole
February 4, 2014

Despite thousands of air traffic controllers being eligible to retire over the next few years, the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City has been closed for the past year due to FAA budget problems. As a result, several thousand graduates of two-year and four-year ATC courses at FAA-approved colleges and universities have bided their time on an FAA waiting list, waiting until the agency decided to resume training. But within the past month, FAA has shifted gears, dumped all those applications, and announced plans to recruit candidates “off the street.” Needless to say, those graduates and their schools are up in arms over this—and thereby hangs quite a tale.

Back in 1997 FAA began a program called the Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), under which it recruited colleges and universities to offer degree courses in air traffic control. Participating schools were told that their graduates would become the primary hiring source for new controllers. Prior to this, applicants were recruited “off the street,” with the only requirements being a high school diploma or three years of work experience. With ATC becoming more and more high-tech, it made sense that FAA sought to increase the competence, knowledge level, and educational level of its NextGen-oriented controller workforce.

In 2005, the DOT Inspector General’s office released a study titled “FAA Has Opportunities to Reduce Academy Training Time and Costs by Increasing Educational Requirements for Newly Hired Air Traffic Controllers” (AV-2006-021, Dec. 7, 2005). The idea was for FAA to shift portions of the coursework taught at the Academy to the CTI schools, and make those courses a prerequisite for employment as a controller. This was consistent with declared policy that CTI graduates would be the primary source of new controllers. The report also pointed out that many professional positions within the federal government require a degree in their area of expertise as a condition of employment. Several former senior officials of the Air Traffic Organization strongly supported this idea when I asked them about it.

But FAA did not take this advice, so in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act, Congress asked the GAO to review the potential cost savings and benefits of shifting basically all the Academy coursework to the 36 CTI schools. Its preliminary report (GAO-12-996R) found that a proper cost-effectiveness analysis of this proposal depended on several cost elements that were not known at that time. It promised further work, with FAA involvement, to be reported on in 2013. But GAO tells me that they stopped work on the project due to FAA plans to pilot-test shifting controller training from the Academy to CTI schools, a plan that FAA has apparently dropped, given what follows.

Due to the 2013 Academy shut-down, between 3,000 and 3,500 CTI graduates were on the FAA waiting list, hoping for the restart of hiring that would send them to the FAA Academy for (partly redundant) coursework, followed by several years of on-the-job training in a tower, TRACON, or en-route center. But in January, all hell broke loose.

Rumors had already been circulating in December that FAA was instead going to issue a general public (“off the street”) announcement early in 2014. CTI schools and graduates were puzzled and upset over why the agency would do this when it already had thousands of college graduates ready to go. The answer turned out to be “diversity.” In a rational world, the FAA Air Traffic Organization would define its controller selection and training requirements, and based on the events recounted above, would very likely have gone with the CTI graduates, even while resisting (for the usual bureaucratic reasons) substituting CTI coursework for Academy coursework. But thanks to the “one FAA” policy instituted in recent years, the ATO depends for its support services on the parent organization—in this case, the FAA Human Resources department.

Last month the FAA HR department informed various diversity organizations about its new FAA Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign. Of course the news leaked and was soon common knowledge to all the CTI schools and their graduates. On Feb. 10th, a 10-day campaign will be launched inviting anyone with a high school diploma or three years of work experience to apply. CTI graduates must re-apply under this program in order to be considered. All applicants must pass two tests in order to be accepted—the normal ATC aptitude test (AT-SAT) and a “biographical test.” The latter is widely believed to be an effort to identify indicators of minority group status.

Previous FAA reports have praised the CTI schools for recruiting and graduating minority candidates, but the resulting numbers graduating from the Academy apparently do not satisfy those running the FAA HR department. While I’ve been inundated with material that is circulating among CTI schools, I decided to see if their concerns about the HR department were shared by other knowledgeable people. I interviewed two retired senior officials of the Air Traffic Organization, both of whom confirmed the CTI assessment. Among the comments from one of them: “This has always been a huge issue for the ATO. HR has total control and generally ignored any ATO input. The atmosphere between HR and ATO was really bad when I was there. Sounds like it is not any different now.”

Where this will end up I have no idea. But it appears to me that a very valuable contribution to better controller selection and training is at risk of being discarded. And that is yet another reason why we need an independent, self-supporting ATO with its own HR staff, accountable to its stakeholder board.

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