FAA Finds Minimal Benefits from New Controller Hiring Process, Reason Foundation

Robert Poole
September 4, 2014

FAA Finds Minimal Benefits from New Controller Hiring Process

On July 30th the Wall Street Journal published results from the first go-round of FAA’s new “off-the-street” controller hiring process. As you may recall from previous stories, instead of recruiting from graduates of the several dozen colleges with specialized two-year or four-year ATC curricula and people with prior military controller or other experience, it invited anyone from the public to apply. And instead of passing only the usual controller aptitude test, they first had to “pass” a biographical questionnaire (BQ), whose content and scoring are not public knowledge but which circumstantial evidence suggests was intended to recruit more minorities.

About 28,000 people applied, and of those who passed both of the above hurdles and received offers of employment as controller trainees, 65% were Collegiate Training Initiative graduates, former military controllers, or others with aviation work history. The remaining 35% were off-the-street hires with no aviation background or knowledge. The WSJ story reported that the pass rate for CTI graduates was 12.6%, compared with an overall average of 3.7% for all the others who applied. These pass rates refer to clearing both hurdles: the bio questionnaire and the aptitude test.

What the FAA did not disclose was the pass rate for the “street” hires with aviation backgrounds—former military controllers, private pilots, etc. Presumably, they would be more likely to qualify than the purely street hires, but that number is not available. That also makes it impossible to know the pass rate of the purely street hires (with no aviation backgrounds). But it’s possible to estimate one pass rate and thereby derive the other, since we know the weighted average of non-CTI grads is 3.7%.

To begin with, I figured out from the aggregated pass rates that the total hired was 1,588, of which 756 were CTI grads and 832 were street hires (including those with aviation backgrounds). The next step is an if/then calculation. It seems likely that street hires with aviation backgrounds would have a pass rate somewhere between that of CTI grads and non-aviation street hires. I started by assuming the aviation ones did half as well as CTI grads. Solving the equations based on the weighted average pass rate of all 832 street hires, with the aviation ones at 6.3%, the pure-street ones would be at 3.2%. Alternatively, if the aviation ones did three-quarters as well as CTI grads, averaging 9.45%, then the pure-street average would drop to 2.9%. That’s a very small pass rate after all this trouble.

Those numbers, of course, are only for getting into the FAA Academy. We have no idea what the wash-out rate will be, and how it will differ among these three groups of just-hired trainees. Nor will we know for several years what fraction of those who graduate from the Academy make it to full performance level controllers.

Given what a departure this new hiring process is from the previous approach, and that it flies in the face of previous ATO intentions, based on recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General, to revamp hiring to rely mostly or entirely on CTI graduates, I’ve been surprised at the relative silence of both controllers union NATCA and the FAA Managers Association. NATCA’s current statement on this process explains that the union is not involved in the hiring process, but is “hopeful that FAA will continue to make improvements to its new process and make a successful hiring effort in 2015.” It goes on to say that because NATCA’s top priority is safety, “We have urged the FAA to hire the most qualified air traffic control candidates and place them in facilities where they have the best opportunity to successfully train to achieve full certification.” Is that praising with faint damns, or what?

The July/August issue of the FAAMA magazine, Managing the Skies, includes a short paragraph on the subject, which refers to a position statement on their website. I could not find it there, but was able to obtain a copy. While supporting the goal of seeking a more diverse controller workforce, the statement says it is not clear that the BQ helps with increasing diversity, and that FAA has not demonstrated a nexus between the BQ and its goals. In its summing-up points, it states flatly that “Lowering entry and performance standards is not acceptable,” and that “FAA must incorporate transparency in hiring” such as “explaining how the new hiring plan will achieve better, cost-effective results than the old system.” And it also notes that controversy and litigation over the new approach “threatens to slow the entry of critically needed students into the FAA Academy.” Well-said, FAAMA.

Upcoming Event

59th ATCA Annual Conference and Exposition, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Gaylord Hotel, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: www.atca.org/59Annual


Posted in Advocacy, Media and tagged , .