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.