A plane passes the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia...

A plane passes the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport during takeoff on Feb. 25, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

A revamped hiring process for federal air traffic controllers that the government says is designed to broaden the applicant pool is being assailed by critics who say it has resulted in the selection of candidates with no experience over graduates of rigorous aviation programs.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it changed the process and added a personality test, called the Biographical Questionnaire, as the first hurdle in hiring controllers in order to get the best possible job candidates.

The test, officials said, measures risk tolerance, dependability, cooperation, resilience, stress tolerance and other traits. It was developed through years of research to predict pass rates at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, the agency’s principal training facility, and whether a controller will be certified at his or her first air traffic site.

The test asks questions about personality, education and high school grades, according to people who have taken it.

The exam is open to anyone who is an English-speaking U.S. citizen with a high school diploma and some work history. No aviation experience is required. Those who pass are eligible to move to the next step in the process of becoming an air traffic controller — taking the air traffic standardized aptitude test, or AT-SAT.

Controllers nationwide direct tens of thousands of daily flights in a busy and complex airspace, managing separation between airplanes that travel at hundreds of miles per hour. They make split-second decisions based on weather and other factors. As of May 2015, the annual mean wage for an air traffic controller in New York was $133,050, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Before the FAA changed the hiring protocol in 2014, the majority of new air traffic control hires had served as controllers in the military or graduated from an FAA-approved Collegiate Training Initiative program — resulting in associate’s or bachelor’s degrees — and were given preference in hiring because of that experience.

Those applicants had to pass the eight-hour AT-SAT and sit for an interview before being accepted into the 17-week FAA Academy. On-the-job training typically occurs at their first facility, and it can take about two years of that training to become a certified professional controller.

Since 2014, any applicants with aviation degrees or military service are now on equal footing with people without any experience, because the first step to being hired means passing the questionnaire.

In some cases, applicants with no experience are passing the questionnaire while those with academic training degrees are not, according to the Association of Collegiate Training Institutions, a group of 24 CTI schools lobbying against the FAA’s current hiring policy.

“I have a couple of students who actually were air traffic controllers in the military and failed that test,” said Tom Daly, dean of Dowling College’s School of Aviation, which is one of 36 CTI schools but is not in the lobbying coalition. “How could you be an air traffic controller for five years, very successfully, and fail that test?”

Those who pass go on to take the AT-SAT. If they pass that, they can be selected for the FAA Academy, subject to medical and background checks. Those who fail the questionnaire must wait until the next time the FAA hires — usually once a year — to retake it. Applicants can continue to retake the questionnaire if they fail it, but there is an age limit of 31 for new air traffic control hires.

The change in hiring has angered Collegiate Training Initiative graduates, especially those who had already scored well on the AT-SAT and were on a preferred hiring list when the FAA announced it would make the change. A federal reverse discrimination lawsuit has been filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law group from Colorado, and its lawyers are seeking class-action status.

Lawyers estimate they could have as many as 3,000 plaintiffs who suffered from reverse discrimination, arguing the new hiring process was adopted to increase diversity in the controller workforce.

The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Andrew J. Brigida, said he has two aviation degrees and got a perfect score on the AT-SAT, but failed the questionnaire twice and has not been able to enter the academy.

“We have a statement from a leading FAA official that we quoted in the complaint, and he said that they made this decision in order to increase diversity,” said attorney Jeffrey McCoy, referring to a statement made by FAA public affairs specialist Tony Molinaro.

“The FAA said if you go to a CTI school and you pass the AT-SAT that you will be eligible to go to training, and then after they had done that, the FAA disqualified them not because of their skills, but because they made a decision based on race,” McCoy said.

The FAA said Molinaro’s statement was ill-informed and mistaken and said in a statement that it makes hires solely based on merit, not “on gender or racial goals.”

Two years in, the new process has significantly increased the representation of women and minorities in hiring, the agency said, but a spokeswoman could not provide figures on the percentage of certified controllers who are women or minorities.

A 2014 FAA report on using biographical data to hire controllers said the AT-SAT has been problematic in the past because it “has been found to be a hiring ‘barrier’ for African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and female applicants.”

A change was needed because the old hiring process was no longer capable of predicting success in future controllers, the FAA said. One benefit of the questionnaire, the agency said in a statement, is it has “little adverse effect on any discrete group or subgroup of test-takers.”

Using biodata from the questionnaire — such as information about high school GPA, work and life experience, and work habits — to sift through and eliminate candidates also cuts down on the cost of administering the AT-SAT, the FAA said.

The FAA report said the strongest predictors of success are a high score on the AT-SAT, in which 70 percent is considered passing, and the trainee’s age — the younger, the better. After accounting for those factors, the report found trainees with college degrees were no more likely to succeed in controller training than those without.

And the qualities that lead to success in a CTI degree program, the FAA said, aren’t the same as those tested with the combination of the AT-SAT and Biographical Questionnaire. The AT-SAT measures cognitive abilities, skills and knowledge of air traffic control scenarios. The questionnaire seeks information on work habits, education and other factors the FAA says correlate with success.

According to 2015 FAA data obtained by the Association of Collegiate Training Institutions, a larger percentage of white applicants passed the test than any other defined racial group. Almost 31 percent of the 10,384 white people who took it passed in 2015, compared with 26 percent of those who said they were multiethnic, 24 percent of Hispanics, and about 21 percent of African-Americans, Asians and American Indians.

Enrollment at some Collegiate Training Initiative schools has dropped since the questionnaire began to be given, program directors said.

“Most of the schools across the board have seen a decline in enrollment overall, we’ve all seen a decline because again there’s no incentive on the back end to get hired,” said Sam Fischer, president of the Association of Collegiate Training Institutions and head of the CTI program at Florida State College in Jacksonville. “We’ve seen a decrease in enrollment, but I think the students we have are the motivated ones.”

Members of the House of Representatives have supported a proposed measure to end using the questionnaire. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and with bipartisan support from 28 members, would end the FAA’s use of the questionnaire to screen applicants, and revert to previous hiring practices, giving preference to military controllers and CTI graduates.

In addition, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation is investigating the FAA’s justification for adopting the questionnaire and the changes it created in the hiring pool. That report is due this spring, a spokesman for Hultgren said.

One former Collegiate Training Initiative school student, who did not want to be identified because he still hopes to become an air traffic controller, said he has taken the questionnaire twice and failed both times.

“It’s a lot of money I pretty much threw away. . . . If I would have known, I would have gone to school for something else,” said the student, who works in a Northeast air traffic control facility.

FAA officials say the questionnaire is fair to CTI graduates. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said 65 percent of the class that got tentative job offers in 2014, the first year the questionnaire was offered, were CTI graduates, military or had aviation backgrounds. Collegiate Training Initiative graduates also got tentative offers at three times the rate of other applicants that year, Huerta said.

The new hiring practice was adopted during what the controllers union has called a “crisis level” staffing shortage. Controller numbers have fallen 10 percent since 2011 to about 10,800 fully certified controllers nationwide as of September 2015, the union said, and many facilities that manage the most congested airspace are below minimum requirements — New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Westbury had 150 certified controllers when the minimum range for staffing is 173, according to a January government watchdog audit.

One-third of controllers are also eligible to retire, with a mandatory retirement age of 56. The FAA has said it is working to hire several thousand additional controllers over the next several years to offset future retirements.

Minimum requirements for air traffic control hires:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Must start at the FAA Academy no later than your 31st birthday
  • Must pass a medical examination and security investigation
  • Must have three years of “progressively responsible” work experience, or a bachelor’s degree, or a combination of work and postsecondary schooling that equals three years
  • Must pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment tests
  • Air traffic control specialists have a mandatory retirement age of 56.

Source: FAA

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