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.

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