FAA’s shift in hiring raises concerns

The Kansas City area has about 460 air traffic controllers, at the Kansas City International and downtown airports, and the FAA’s regional center in Olathe.
The Kansas City area has about 460 air traffic controllers, at the Kansas City International and downtown airports, and the FAA’s regional center in Olathe. Kansas City Star file photo

Brittany Powers graduated in May with a college degree that prepared her for a job as an air traffic controller, chasing a dream that began when she was a teenager.

“I was 13 or 14 and our family was driving past O’Hare … and I asked my mom what they do up in the tower,” said Powers, now 22, of Plainfield, Ill.

But the honors student at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., has already been passed over by her prospective employer, the Federal Aviation Administration, solely because of her answers on a new “biographical assessment’’ that includes questions about how peers would describe the individual, the age at which the person started to earn money, and how many — if any — sports the applicant played in high school.

It’s part of an abrupt overhaul this year to the FAA’s air traffic controller hiring policy, which for almost 25 years gave preferred status to aviation graduates such as Powers as well as former military controllers. Now, the FAA is conducting an off-the-street recruiting process for all candidates. It begins with the assessment, which is open to most people with a high school diploma.

FAA officials have defended the policy, saying the assessment is merely the first cut in a rigorous application process and gauges traits shown to predict success as a controller.

The agency added that the new recruitment policy is necessary to fill thousands of openings in the next five years amid a wave of retirements. But the agency hasn’t explained how a policy that appears to be disqualifying thousands who previously could have been hired will somehow help the agency fill vacancies.

“Improvements were made to enhance decision-making and increase objectivity in the assessment of candidates,” FAA spokeswoman Kristie Greco said.

Critics argue that the unproven strategy will cost millions of dollars and could complicate FAA attempts to replenish its workforce, erode passenger safety in the long term and increase travel delays, in part because an influx of aviation novices hired from among the general public would create more work for veteran controllers in an already high-stress job.

“The FAA never reacts quickly to anything, yet they reacted quickly to some perceived problem,’’ said Mike Nolan, professor of aviation technology at Purdue University, home to one of 36 FAA-approved air traffic control programs in the U.S.

“If they had told us three years ago that this was coming, I would have told students, ‘Don’t enroll in a major that is not overly applicable outside of air traffic control,’’’ Nolan said.

Some experts also suggest that the policy appears quietly aimed at attracting more minorities and women to a workforce that is largely male and white, even though the FAA says the new policy is “blind on the issue of diversity, from start to finish.”

Hesston College, near Wichita, is the closest school to Kansas City that offer the FAA-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program. Aviation director Dan Miller said two of this year’s air traffic control graduates, a man and a woman, passed the new biographical assessment, but he know of nine who did not.

Miller said that the FAA has been “less than transparent” about the test questions or the criteria for selection to go on to the next phase, an aptitude test.

At Hesston, Miller said those who passed were “well deserving,” and neither was a minority. But the 2014 class also included three equally well-qualified African American men, Miller said, who did not get through the biographical round.

Farm system gone

For years, the FAA, hired controller candidates from three primary pools — graduates of schools with the FAA-approved program, military veterans and the general public.

The schools traditionally have served as the FAA’s farm system, and graduates quickly moved on to more advanced training at an FAA academy in Oklahoma City.

Kansas City employs its share of air traffic controllers — 460 by last year’s Bureau of Labor Statistics count. They work the towers at Kansas City International Airport and the downtown airport, and an AA Air Route Traffic Control Center in Olathe.

The center, responsible for air traffic coverage in a 192,000-square-mile region, is one of 22 such route control operations nationwide.

Most fliers are aware that directing airplanes requires precision and permits little margin for error. And a controller’s life exacts stress on both body and mind, which is why the FAA requires controllers to retire at age 56, about a decade before the typical retirement age.

The surge in retirements is linked to the 1981 strike by unionized controllers, during which President Ronald Reagan fired the strikers and the FAA hired new controllers. The FAA estimates that during a decadelong period ending this year, 11,000 of those replacement controllers will have left their jobs.

Another staffing challenge is the rate of controller failure, or washout, which can exceed 50 percent in some of the more challenging air traffic facilities such as the control tower at O’Hare International Airport, according to FAA records.

College candidates scramble

The FAA has announced plans to hire more than 6,600 controllers over the next five years to keep pace with expected attrition and to handle projected increases in flights.

The policy switch related to that hiring push has left about 3,500 aviation school air traffic graduates who have invested time and money scrambling to get in line with job hunters from among the general public for vacant FAA controller candidate positions.

At Hesston College, Miller said he felt bad for graduates from two and three years ago who already were in the FAA hiring pipeline but now haven’t passed the new screening.

“Some scored 100 points on the tests before, and now they’re not accepted,” he said. “They were already in line for Oklahoma City, and now their career dream may be gone.”

Powers was among those graduates of FAA-approved programs at schools including Purdue, Lewis, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of North Dakota who have received “NOT eligible’’ emails from the FAA, based on their responses to the biographical assessment.

She says she plans on reapplying with the FAA down the road, but older air traffic control graduates don’t have the luxury of time.

FAA policy prohibits the hiring of applicants who are 31 or older because the agency would like to get at least 25 years of service out of controllers before they are required to hang up their headsets at 56.

Christopher Thurlby graduated from Lewis with an air traffic control degree in December 2012 — after taking out nearly $85,000 in student loans. And he will be 31 in October, effectively timing out. The FAA bureaucracy often takes about a year to hire employees, so Thurlby figured he wouldn’t stand a chance, even if he were to pass the biographical assessment, which he did not take.

When he began his studies more than five years ago, “it seemed like a sure thing,’’ he said. “As far as I am concerned, I held up my end of the bargain, but there is no job for me. It is disheartening.”

The Association of Collegiate Training Institutions, which represents the 36 U.S. air traffic control schools, said the new FAA hiring process will “jeopardize air traffic safety, cost millions of dollars more to implement and take longer to train a controller workforce that is already critically under-manned.”

“We were totally shocked when the FAA announcement came out that they were going to hire off the street with no experience necessary,’’ said Douglas Williams, aviation program director at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland. “This biographical assessment should not have been used as a qualifier or a disqualifier to be hired.”

‘Transform the FAA’

FAA officials said the biographical assessment is just the first round in a rigorous application process, adding that aviation-school graduates, like everyone else, are free to try again during the next round of hiring, expected next year.

FAA officials disputed the idea that candidates with an air traffic education perform better than other groups once they are working inside the air traffic control system.

“Veterans performed better than the general public and better than students” from the collegiate aviation programs, said Greco, the FAA spokeswoman. But the air traffic school graduates and members of the general public “performed virtually the same,” she said.

A 2011 FAA report by an independent review panel, however, offered a different perspective.

The report that investigated how controllers are selected, assigned and trained said the agency brought aboard more than twice the number of public hires than aviation graduates in 2010 and 2011. It noted: “On a field interview one trainer remarked, ‘Please tell them not to send me any more public hires.’ This type of comment, with other information reviewed by the panel, indicates that the FAA needs to review its hiring practices to take advantage of the (collegiate air traffic) system it has created.”

An FAA statement accompanying the release of the study noted that FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is committed to “transform the FAA into a more diverse and inclusive workplace that reflects, understands and relates to the diverse customers we serve.”

Even though the FAA denies that race and gender are factors in the new hiring policy, the collegiate association calls it “a knee-jerk reaction to quickly elevate minority numbers in the air traffic controller workforce.’’ It cited a study commissioned by the FAA in 2013 that concluded college is a barrier to African-Americans being hired by the FAA.

The debate over diversity among FAA controllers traces, in part, to decades-old agency hiring practices that favored military veterans, most of them male. That practice began to decline when the military draft ended in 1973, leading to increased hiring through college aviation programs and, to a lesser degree, the general public.

Today, men make up 83 percent of the FAA workforce of about 14,100 controllers, according to the agency. About 82 percent of controllers are white, 7 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are black.

2,400 of 28,000 pass

The FAA says the new hiring policy’s goal is to recruit better candidates while also cutting costs associated with testing and training.

Efforts to attain that goal have already required a lot of sifting and winnowing. More than 28,000 applications were received through the general public hiring process, the FAA said. A high school diploma and several years of work experience are among the minimum requirements needed to apply.

Only about 2,400 of the 28,000 applicants passed the biographical assessment. The FAA said it will fill 1,700 controller positions this year.

New controllers typically undergo several years of on-the-job training before being certified and allowed to handle live traffic on their own, a fact that some experts say should minimize any immediate safety problems stemming from the FAA hiring changes.

But those experts point to the likelihood that the FAA would slow down the air traffic system — causing chronic airline flight delays — if safety problems emerged from an over-reliance on the swelling numbers of rookie controllers in airport towers and at radar facilities.

The change in hiring policy has sparked congressional inquiries and a class-action lawsuit against the FAA for basically invalidating the existing college aviation hiring system.

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican, said the FAA has failed to give lawmakers answers that justify the hiring change or show how it will improve safety.

“There is a lot of secrecy about where this new program originated,” said Hultgren, who has met with air traffic controllers and aviation graduates who live in his district. “I have not gotten adequate responses from the FAA or from the (Obama) administration.”

Diane Stafford of The Star’s business staff contributed to this article.