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.
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.
59th ATCA Annual Conference and Exposition, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Gaylord Hotel, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: www.atca.org/59Annual
Air Traffic Control Newsletter #114
June 27, 2014
In the February issue of this newsletter I broke the story of the FAA’s abrupt shift in recruiting candidates for training as new controllers. Instead of giving priority to about 3,000 graduates of FAA-approved ATC curriculum at the 36 colleges that are members of the Collegiate Training Institute, it announced two major changes starting early this year. First, all controller recruitment would be “off the street,” and second, the initial step would be for all applicants to fill out and pass a “Biographical Questionnaire” aimed at recruiting a more-diverse workforce. Despite widespread dismay and anger on the part of CTI faculty and graduates, the agency went ahead with this plan. And as feared by CTI graduates, large numbers of them “failed” the BQ (with no explanation of why) and could not proceed any further, calling into question the money spent and two to four years they have invested in hopes of becoming controllers.
Until recently, the major media had ignored this story. But on May 23rd, the Wall Street Journal‘s Susan Carey published “FAA Closes a Hiring Runway,” reporting on the situation and quoting both faculty and graduates about this abrupt and inexplicable change of course. That opened the floodgates. Chicago Tribune transportation reporter John Hilkevitch followed up with and in-depth article on May 27th. These two stories were enough to stimulate many local newspapers and television stations to cover the story. A particularly well-done example is the five-minute piece aired by ABC’s 7News in Denver on June 2nd. If it is still online by the time you read this, I urge you to watch it: www.thedenverchannel.com/news/call7-investigators/faa-changes-hiring-practices-for-air-traffic-controllers-ignoring-qualified-students-and-vets.
Until recently, the only member of Congress to take an interest in this debacle was Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA), who grilled DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx about it at a March 14thhearing. But in late May, 29 House members, from both parties, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta complaining about the lack of transparency in the agency’s new hiring program. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there has been no public response from the FAA thus far.
Various former FAA officials I’ve talked with about this issue are appalled by the FAA’s change of course. Among other things, they cited a recommendation by the DOT Inspector General back in 2005 that the hiring process be changed in the opposite direction: that CTI graduates who passed the traditional controller aptitude test be exempted from some or all FAA Academy training and go straight to on-the-job training. Congress urged something similar in the 2012 FAA reauthorization measure. And many experts on the shift to the more technology-intensive NextGen paradigm for air traffic management favor requiring a college degree for all new controllers (which is not required for the new “off-the-street” hiring process).
Congress really should take action to get FAA controller recruitment back on course, eliminating the BQ and re-opening the door to CTI graduates.
Air Traffic Control Newsletter #111
March 19, 2014
Sen. Murray Challenges FAA’s “Biographical Test” for New Controllers
In a March 14th hearing of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA) asked probing questions of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the FAA’s new controller recruitment effort (about which I wrote last month). Sen. Murray noted the plight of more than 3,000 graduates of the FAA-sponsored Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program who have invested years and many thousands of dollars obtaining degrees in aviation and air traffic control. Under the new approach implemented last month, they no longer have first shot at controller training positions. Instead, they must compete with thousands of off-the-street applicants who are required to have no more than a high-school diploma or three years of any kind of work experience.
Even more troubling to her is the requirement that applicants pass a “biographical questionnaire” (BQ) in order to be considered for an opening in the training program. She noted that of the 28,000 people who applied, only 2,200 passed the BQ. Numerous knowledgeable CTI graduates failed the BQ, but cannot find out why. How can this be, she asked Sec. Foxx. The Secretary gave a pretty general reply, saying the agency had noticed that the group of people who apply for controller training “tend to be rather limited,” and that the aim of the new procedure is to try to recruit from a larger population. CTI graduates, he said, will have a leg up during the training—but of course that’s only possible if they have passed the BQ.
Sen. Murray was having none of this. She repeated her concern about highly qualified CTI applicants being turned away due to the BQ, and said that controllers union NATCA is also concerned about this. Nobody understands what the BQ is supposed to measure, or why people are failing. Foxx said that he will have FAA Administrator Michael Huerta respond directly to her on these matters. Just to be sure, the Senator repeated that she wants to find out:
- Why such a small fraction of applicants are passing the BQ;
- The current status of the CTI program; and,
- What this new process is adding to the caliber of the controller workforce. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OrfVpKMQ_c)
Since I wrote last month’s story on this major change in controller recruitment, I have learned that some senior people in the Air Traffic Organization had planned on making CTI the primary source of applicants, and were even considering exempting those CTI graduates who passed the traditional aptitude test from some or all of the training at the FAA Academy (which would save the FAA money). This approach was first suggested by the DOT Inspector General in 2005, and was urged on FAA by Congress in the 2012 reauthorization bill. But now FAA has done just the opposite. From everything I can tell, the new recruitment approach was thought up by the FAA Human Resources department, not the ATO, and therefore does not represent ATO thinking on the best way to ensure a highly qualified 21st century NextGen workforce.
Air Traffic Control Newsletter #110
The ATC cross-subsidy dilemma, Controversy over controller hiring and training, Another real-time aviation weather project
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.