New policies for hiring air traffic controllers under scrutiny, WAFF

Thursday, November 20th 2014, 1:45 pm MST

Nick Lough


More than 24 million Americans will fly somewhere for Thanksgiving this year. Now, there are questions about new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hiring practices for air traffic controllers and if those new policies are putting the flying public at risk.

A U.S. Congressman has called it illogical. A growing number of college graduates with aviation degrees say it’s eliminating some of the best and brightest.

Prior to 2014, the FAA put a premium on hiring air traffic control candidates from College Training Initiative (CTI) schools. Several dozen schools participated in the program. The closest to North Alabama is Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

According to the FAA’s own website, the program is designed to give students a curriculum based on the fundamentals of aviation and the government organization “considers AT-CTI graduates a valuable hiring source.”

CTI students were not guaranteed jobs – they still were required to pass an AT-SAT aptitude test and obtain specific and specialized training. This year, the rules changed and the FAA opened up hiring to everyone.

That means people right off the street, with no prior aviation training or skills, could apply. They also added a biographical assessment questionnaire for any potential candidate. That’s a move that Washington Senator Patty Murray questioned United States Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about earlier this year. Foxx oversees the FAA.

“The FAA took an opportunity to do a more broad opening of the aperture, if you will,” Foxx told Senator Murray when she asked about the biographical assessment questionnaire.

“28,000 applicants took the test. Only 2,200 passed,” Murray then told Foxx. “Nobody understands what this biographical questionnaire is evaluating.”

According to Andrew Brigida, the questionnaire asked him very little about his aviation knowledge.

“It asks questions such as how many art credits did you take in high school,” said Brigida, who ultimately failed the biographical questionnaire. He graduated last year from Arizona State University, a CTI school, with a degree specializing in air traffic control and aviation.

Brigida told us he scored 100 percent on his aptitude test. However, because he failed the biographical questionnaire, or as he describes it, a diversity test, the FAA didn’t hire him.

And he’s not alone. Thousands of CTI school graduates failed the questionnaire; around nine out of every ten.

Who is passing? According to the Chicago Tribune, of the roughly 1,600 air traffic controller jobs available this year, the FAA offered 837 of the positions to people who applied off the street. Those are the applicants with little to no aviation training.

“My goal, my dream is to become a controller,” said Joel Sushereba.

Sushereba is a veteran. He served several years in the United States Navy, where he worked as an air traffic controller.

“I could really jump into a facility right now without the need for the FAA academy at all,” Sushereba said about the new hiring changes. The veteran now teaches air traffic control classes at a CTI school in Maryland.

A veteran who has air traffic control training, on the job experience, and currently teaches the skill to other potential FAA candidates would seem like a slam dunk hire, right?

Wrong. He failed the biographical questionnaire.

“I had to read it a couple of times to make sure I was reading it right, that a personality test told me I was not qualified,” said Sushereba. Both Sushereba and Brigida say the public needs to be aware of the changes.

“This is most certainly a safety issue,” said Sushereba.

The safety issue, both men said, is that if some of the FAA’s new candidates can’t cut it, they’ll get the cut and leave a control tower expecting a new person understaffed and overwhelmed in the interim.

“These overworked, overtired, taxed controllers are going to be more prone towards mistakes,” said Sushereba.

Now Congress is getting involved. Two months ago, two congressmen from Illinois, Representatives Randy Hultgren and Dan Lipinski, introduced the Safe Towers Act. The lawmakers are touting the legislation as restoring common sense to the hiring of air traffic controllers.

The bill, if approved, would restore the FAA’s preferred hiring status for CTI graduates and qualified veterans and eliminate the biographical questionnaire. Congressman Hultgren issued a statement about the act:

The SAFE TOWERS Act is targeted at making sure we have the best and brightest in our control towers. When you climb into an airliner, you trust the pilot, the crew and air traffic controllers will keep you safe. The new hiring standards jeopardize air travel safety because they divert the hiring process around highly-qualified, CTI-certified trainees and elevate off-the-street candidates. Psychological assessments are important, especially for high-stress jobs. But disqualifying highly-trained, certified graduates because they did or did not play sports in high school, as one Bio Q question asked, is ridiculous. The SAFE TOWERS Act ensures our towers are again operated by qualified veterans and graduates with specialized aviation degrees, and provides relief for those who ‘aged out’ of the process. Further, it makes sure the FAA is open and transparent about their hiring procedures.

The bill has been referred to a Congressional committee. Sushereba and Brigida are closely watching it in hopes it passes and helps them move past this job hunt nightmare.

“I’m frustrated because I’ve been investing in a career in the FAA for the last nine years,” said Sushereba.

“The part that amazes me about it is there are current controllers that saw how ridiculous this new process was,” said Brigida. “They applied to be controllers just to take this test and they also failed this questionnaire test. Even though they’re already controllers, they somehow would not get hired currently if they were not controllers.”

We reached out to the FAA and asked them several questions including if they plan to use the biographical questionnaire when hiring in the future. Their statement in response is as follows:

The FAA reviewed the end-to-end process of hiring and assigning air traffic control specialists and chose to make several improvements to the way it selects, trains, and assigns air traffic controllers in order to recruit a better qualified candidate and reduce costs associated with testing and training. Improvements were made to enhance decision making and increase objectivity in the assessment of candidates.

The selection process for new air traffic controllers was very competitive. In the course of two weeks, we received over 28,000 applications for 1,700 positions. We expect to hire additional controllers next year and have encouraged those not selected to reapply then. The agency plans to hire more than 6,600 new controllers over the next five years to keep pace with expected attrition and traffic growth.

In previous hires, the FAA would typically keep an inventory of qualified candidates and draw from that pool as needed. In some cases applicants might wait for long durations and never receive a tentative offer letter from the agency, which was a point of criticism from candidates. In this hire, the FAA did not create an inventory and as a result the number of actual positions was very limited.

We have received feedback from Members of Congress and the public and we continue to evaluate our recruitment and applicant assessment process closely. We plan to make further improvements to the process before the next round of hiring.

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